MLK Keynote: The Legacy of Dr. King and the History of Antiracism

by Kevin Fox Jr (@kevinfoxjr)

The keynote speech for Villanova’s Martin Luther King Week was given by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi last Wednesday, January 23, at the Connelly Center’s Villanova Room. Dr. Kendi is the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, D.C. In 2016, his New York Times-bestselling book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racial Ideas in America won the National Book Award.

One major theme of the presentation was that progress against racism has not been socially ubiquitous and unchallenged; rather, its history runs parallel to a history of racism which is increasingly, insidiously masked and sophisticated. Dr. Kendi also argued that one’s actions and intentions could be racist or antiracist but not “not-a-racist;” there is no middle ground to perch oneself on.

But perhaps the most important theme was that racist thinking does not necessarily preclude racist policy. Dr. Kendi proposed that the reason why we have a racist society is not because policymakers are ignorant of the humanity of people with different ethnic backgrounds and somatic features than them. Rather, it is elite economic, political, and cultural self-interest that informs the creation of the legal rules that trap Black people in poverty and oppression.

Dr. Kendi stressed the importance of remembering that Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” given at the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C., was not the end of his story. In some ways it was a beginning. Dr. Kendi wants to learn and teach more about the King who was after Washington and Selma. That is the radical who was transformed into an anti-war advocate, who saw his impulse for a National Civil Rights Movement transformed into a World Human Rights Revolution.

Dr. Kendi stressed to us that this interrogation of Dr. King’s legacy required an understanding of the history of racial ideas, which is the history of Black America, and therefore America at large. He said that we are driven into complacency by accepting the ahistorical idea of a teleological march to progress because racist progress marches along with it.

Dr. Kendi inquired into the nature of ‘I’m-not-a-racism,’ clarifying that it is the denial of the existence of racism. This is not denial in a sense of fighting against racism, but a rhetorical denial which prevents action. The proponents of tactics of racial oppression have always claimed to be something other than racist.

In early modernity, enslavers relied on the Hamitic myth, claiming that Noah’s cursed son Ham was the ancestor of all Africans, and that therefore it was God’s law that we be enslaved.

When phrenology and physiognomy came about, pseudoscience was utilized to propel the idea that Africans were a lower subspecies, not quite human, and so it was not ethically or morally wrong to keep us in bondage.

Now, as mass incarceration is perpetuated by the War on Drugs and the expansion of for-profit prisons, the refrain is that the Black and Latinx people targeted by over-policing are dangerous people from dangerous neighborhoods.

In none of these instances is the system held responsible for the suffering it inflicts on people. In each case, the oppressed are considered beholden to an oppressive existence by intrinsic failures.

Either, as racists say, we are inferior people; or, as antiracists say, there are racist policies. Dr. Kendi argues that many Americans want to stand in the middle – they will accept that there are racist policies, but will shrug at them, and insist that these policies are not a sufficient impediment to warrant being challenged.

Dr. King would find this insufficient reasoning, as we all should. Dr. King believed that “when a people are mired in oppression, they realize deliverance only when they have accumulated the power to make change.” We have to accumulate that power, we have to make that change, and we must recognize these problems; as Dr. Kendi put it, the history of racism is one of denial, while that of antiracism is one of confession.

Dr. Kendi declared that Dr. King’s perspective of antiviolent protest was transformed by the civil unrest he saw from 1965 to 1967. Dr. King went to Watts in 1965 to condemn violence and was called a hypocrite. After seeing the Hough riots in Cleveland in 1966 and the Detroit Uprising in 1967 he realized he could not chide the oppressed about violence while his government was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” But when he criticized the U.S. government for the War in Vietnam and began his Poor People’s Campaign, he was met with incredulity and the questioning of his sanity. He was murdered not long after.

Dr. Kendi implored us to call for immediate equality, we need to call for more than we think is possible, and work for it until it is accomplished. We cannot despair, much as we need to not be naïve; in order to make change, we have to believe in it.

Dr. Kendi’s presentation seemed intended to provoke and inspire. I certainly felt inspired afterward. The questions were almost universally from students, but they seemed less interested in the past and the history of antiracism. They were concerned with building on Dr. King’s legacy and what to do now.

Dr. Kendi did not pretend to have all of the answers, but he put forward some possible solutions. The first question was about police shootings and how to curb them. Dr. Kendi said that police should be governed by the people that they serve: hiring, firing, and investigative power should be held in the hands of the citizens.

The transparency mechanisms currently in place should not be so easily rerouted – officers should not be able to turn body cameras off. Dr. Kendi also suggested that police should be paid better – more money should mean a higher requirement of qualifications and stricter scrutiny of who we allow to carry a guy and a badge.

In the Q&A, Dr. Kendi stated that the perception of “racist” as a “fixed category,” a tattoo which defines someone as a “bad person” has created a fear which prevents people from interrogating their actions and their privileges. Racist is a defining adjective that is not a reflection of a whole person but rather of what an individual sees and says in a given moment; it is correctible.

Dr. Kendi also responded to a question about the ability of our government to do anything besides perpetuate white supremacy. Dr. Kendi said that we are governed by power, which he defined as policymakers, and policy – the powers that have been have perpetuated racist policy, but antiracist policymakers can make antiracist policy.

Another question led Dr. Kendi to stress that people have been taught that we can only create change by educating people, and that some people that know that a system of oppression based on racial hierarchy which situates whites on top and Blacks at the bottom does not exist merely because of ignorance. While it may be possible to separate the consumers of such ideas from the ideas, it is not possible to separate their producers.

But Dr. Kendi also implored the questioner to challenge those uncomfortable with that rhetoric. Ask them to define what a racist idea is, and to define another basic concept. As Dr. Kendi put it, “a bird should be called a bird, a blue chair should be a blue chair, a racist idea should be called a racist idea.”

A student from the law school used Dr. King’s familiar quote on disappointment with the white moderate to ask how one compels that large, heterogenous, amorphous group to challenge racism. Dr. Kendi responded that those who straddle the racism-antiracism fence may believe somewhere within them that racism should change, but they are not willing to sacrifice anything to support policies which will create change. To inspire them to incite change, they have to be confronted about the ways in which their denial of racism is not based in reality and instructed in the ways that oppressive policies also affect them.

Shortly thereafter, Villanova University President Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD concluded the talk with a warm word of thanks to Dr. Kendi, saying that we definitely know how to talk about making a better world, but we often fail at living-up to that ambition. Father Peter told Dr. Kendi that there was room for him at Villanova if ever he gets tired of residing in the capital.

Hopefully we will see him again soon, and we will be practicing what we have been instructed. To take up the legacy of Dr. King, to make this a country worthy of his sacrifices and those of all the women and men, Black, white, and other that marched and struggled, lived and died with him, we must accept that racism has not gone quietly into the night. We must push it out of our society.

Climate Change Town Hall

by Kevin Fox Jr (@kevinfoxjr)

(Cover photo provided by Dr. Paul Rosier)

Global climate change is harder to deny every day, though some fix their mouths and policies to do it nonetheless. According to NASA, seventeen of the eighteen hottest years on record have taken place since 2001; the exception was 1998. It makes sense that the Villanova community is concerned about the phenomenon. From 1:30 PM to a little bit after 3 PM this past Friday, January 25th, Villanova University hosted a Climate Change Town Hall in the Connelly Center Cinema. The focal word of the day was “sustainability,” but it stands to reason that we could have further-investigated what that meant.

The on-stage panel was composed of thirteen members of the faculty, staff, and undergraduate student body that are concerned about the ongoing damage to the world’s climate and Villanova University’s contributions to that destruction. That people came out from all across campus – including across the tracks at the Charles Widger School of Law – showed solidarity across disciplines regarding the commitment of the university to contribute to transforming our way of life to be more sustainable. Dr. Paul Rosier of the History and Sustainability Studies Program and Dr. Jean Lutes from the English Department began with the introductions and a statement of purpose for the meeting.

Dr. Rosier pointed-out that, despite a wind power petition signed and sent to the President’s office in 2006, our university still runs on unsustainable fuel sources and, moreover, that as a Catholic University we have a collective responsibility to not destroy the planet we live on. He stressed that those with the least resources will suffer the most as we enter ever-more-disastrous periods of climate change. Dr. Lutes said that we are currently on pace to leave the world in a worse place than we found it and that the meeting was taking place to cultivate positive action, to put further weight behind an Action Proposal that has been sent to the Strategic Planning Committee because the New Strategic Plan does not account for climate change. The petition that was put forth thirteen years ago had a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050; the Action Proposal wants to move that up twenty years.

Dr. Amanda Grannas, who teaches Chemistry and is Associate Vice Provost for Research, was the first of the eleven speakers assembled to present. She spoke to the lifechanging experience of interacting with indigenous people in Barrow, Alaska, reminded us that “climate change has a real impact on real people.” Furthermore, Dr. Grannas warned us not to demonize those of our fellow Americans that are not [yet] on the same page with regard to climate change. The facts of the matter have long been obscured by the powers of a wealthy energy lobby.

Biology sophomore and chair of the Villanova Environmental Group, Alexa Schoeneborn argued that her experience has shown her that students across campus want to know the school is doing its part to combat climate change. Maeve Kavanaugh, a senior at the Villanova School of Business and member of the Student Sustainability Committee talked about the culture shock she experienced coming from California seeing, for instance, the preponderance of one-use materials at Villanova. She advocated that buildings should be metered individually for their power usage and that we should have an electric shuttle system. Kavanaugh said that the university needs to be a leader in sustainability as we are in research, scholarship, fellowship, and sports; and that sustainability should be included in every curriculum, rather than something students need to go out of the way to learn.

Dr. Ruth McDermott-Levy, Associate professor of Nursing and Director of the Center for Global and Public Health, told us about her experience doing research in Finland on a Fulbright grant. They have already had a rise of two degrees Celsius and they are not prepared, despite their affluence. Dr. McDermott-Levy said that, as environmental degradation continues, the quality and nutritional value of our food is decreasing. Dr. McDermott-Levy stressed that we need a system change, that this is an issue of human spirit, and that we need to challenge ourselves and our institutions to be willing to make those changes.

Dr. Samantha Chapman from Biology said that where she does research in northern Florida, the risen temperatures have transformed former salt marshes into mangrove fields. Dr. Chapman said that we must look into the humanities to see how we can adapt; we cannot look at flora and fauna as inspiring as they can be. We need to mitigate change; to use clean energy and to educate our students and communities.

Dr. Christopher Kilby, an Economics professor from the Villanova School of Business, whose research involves the environmental impact of the World Bank’s lending policies, called on the university to invest more resources in sustainability – to focus more classes, majors and minors, research, and funding for student projects in the area. Dr. Kilby also said that Villanova needs to incentivize responsible choices – we need to find ways to discount public transportation for students, to offer cheaper parking for electric vehicles rather than offering that parking at a premium. He also argued that the selection process for the Board of Trustees should take sustainability into account.

Dennis Gallagher, the Director of Parking and Transportation, said that he was completely in favor of acquiring electric vehicles, and that in his time here the university had shrunken the fleet of old vans and moved to newer, more fuel-efficient options. Mr. Gallagher pointed-out the gains his department has made with the Nova Van OnDemand app which has gone from running all night to pick up an average of nine students between 9PM and 1AM to an efficient service providing more transportation to more people. They have gone from 32 to 800 accounts with an average of 76 people picked up each night. One change he wants to make is putting solar panels on the tops of the parking garages, and Dr. Kilby mentioned putting them on some of the new buildings being built across Lancaster. The only trouble is Radnor Township’s refusal to make an exception to the ordinance limiting the building height.

Dr. Bill Lorenz, the Director of the Sustainable Engineering Program and the Chair of the Service Learning Community, stressed that climate change is the existential threat to our species. He said that it is required of all of us to adopt an ethos of sustainable living, inclusive of social wellbeing, so that we can create “enough, for all, forever.” Dr. Lorenz declared that the school is not in a leadership position at all, even when compared to other similar schools, and that we need to base our campus-wide goals on the UN’s sustainability goals. Dr. Lorenz said that the strategic plan needs to have an interconnected methodology of material quantitative measurements rather than an isolated qualitative one made of insubstantial statements chosen for their audible appeal. He directed students, faculty, and staff to get involved by contacting Matt Ashcroft at mashcro2@villanova.edu.

Dr. Barbara Wall, Professor of Philosophy and Vice President of Mission and Ministry, said that Earth is God’s gift and just as we have a responsibility to steward it we need to move beyond one-dimensional thinking to actively love it. She said also that we need to be an institution without walls and that we as individuals cannot stop at petitioning the board; we must change ourselves and the way we view the world. She stressed communicating with empathy and civility, acknowledging that we are all on different levels of understanding, passion, and education. Dr. Wall concluded that we need to think ahead seven generations, and that taking better care of the planet is not just something nice for us to do for our hypothetical grandchildren; it is an ethical responsibility. We cannot be numbed and we must practice hope.

It was encouraging to see so many people come out to talk about climate change. There was standing room only with both doors open and people in the alcove trying to pick up what they could. It was unfortunate that more students did not get to talk. The conversation from the crowd was largely dominated by faculty, though the educators were definitely the minority in the room. The bookends were the standouts.

A student opened the Q&A with a comment that a similar townhall had taken place in the same room when the decision to arm Public Safety was made. The board will ignore us if they can. He said that, if this was as important to us as it seemed to be then we needed to be willing to sacrifice something personally. His sentiment was echoed by several faculty members across the arts and sciences. We were called-upon by the panel to contact the board directly, not just through our petition but through individual emails.

Toward the end, a student asked the most sensible question anyone heard, a practical one – what are we doing to reduce food, plastic, and paper waste? The panel assured us that Tim Dietzler, the Director of Dining Hall Services, is one of the campus leaders on sustainability, and that he is all the time moving toward more plant-based foods.

I was personally left with two unanswered questions. One – how do we define sustainability? Do we mean to sustain our current way of life? Because that is not foreseeable in the long run.

The Environmental Science-specific definition of sustainability in the Random House Dictionary is “the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.” If the core of this university’s mission to educate, unite, and care for people in a sustainable manner, we might need to be willing to make changes beyond raising parking and doing a better job with food waste. We might need less food; we might need to stop trying to expand.

My other question is simpler and more practical: what can we do about all of the lights that are on after everyone has gone home? We need to start at the obvious steps so we can move on to the larger systemic ones.

Below is the key passage from the 2006 proposal put forth by the Villanova Environmental Group:

“This petition signifies our support for a change in the environmental policy at Villanova University. Currently we are one of the few schools of our caliber in the state of Pennsylvania that is not purchasing a percentage of our energy from wind power. Wind power is a renewable, environmentally friendly method of obtaining energy. As young scholars and potential leaders in society it is our duty to be stewards of the environment and address the pertinent issue of environmental degradation. As members of a Catholic institution we also have a responsibility to adhere to the Catholic social teachings that involve environmental issues. Our actions should reflect our values. To not participate in progressive steps by purchasing wind power deprives the Villanova community of being part of a movement of concerned global citizens.”

Misrepresenting History and Republicans claiming Dr. King

by Kevin Fox Jr (@kevinfoxjr)

The greater a person’s historical impact, the more likely their words are to be taken out of context and misrepresented to forward some agenda. By doing this, contemporary persons are borrowing credibility from someone that has already worked to better the world, and seemingly aligning their agenda with that of the historical figure.

Misattributing quotes to historical figures is so common today that it is regularly done on purpose for humor’s sake in comics and memes on Reddit and Twitter. Next to the founding fathers – and perhaps surpassing them – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. may be the person whose legacy is most often prey to this phenomenon. By juxtaposing him with el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X) for instance, the American collective consciousness has allowed itself to see Dr. King as not just a benevolent but a benign actor.

In so doing, we whitewash the history of the United States’ people and institutions, not to mention belittling and demonizing Malcolm X. Both men contributed to the ongoing struggle for Black liberation and self-determination and one has been pacified. They have been poised against each other and this has a lot to do with their historical images being frozen in time, allowing people to ignore the ways in which their perspectives evolved over the course of their public lives.[1]

Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a perfect person, but there are other places you can read about his extramarital dalliances or his academic integrity as an undergraduate. Today, I want to discuss the fact that a Black radical is reshaped by moderates and conservatives to silence and disregard activists for social justice. Somehow, Vice President Mike Pence fixed his mouth to compare President Donald Trump to Dr. King.[2]

Just this past Thursday, January 17, 2019, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed calling Dr. King a ‘Colorblind Radical’ asserting that his radicalism was only on “nonracial issues,” as if boycotts and marches do not constitute radical action.[3] The same article contrasts him with the Black-power movement, casting it as one of racial division – because apparently the fight for representation in politics and protection from police brutality is divisive.

Conservative website PJ Media published an article on January 17, 2016 stating that Black Lives Matter is a separatist movement and Dr. King would have been opposed to it. Another conservative website, Downtrend, published a less-articulate version of the same message in August of 2015, using a clip from Fox News interviewing Dr. King’s niece, conservative activist Dr. Alveda King saying that BLM is a distraction.[5]  However, Dr. King once wrote that the system of policing “is the most abrasive element in Negro-white relations,” and I think that Black Lives Matter would agree.[6] Dr. Alveda King has also been known to help perpetuate the myth that Dr. King was a Republican, though Dr. King stated in 1958 that he thought neither party was perfect and his son has more recently refuted Dr. Alveda King’s statement.[7]

I do not think Dr. King would neatly fit into the over-general political umbrellas of ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ and his son stated definitively that Dr. King was a non-partisan. He alienated some of his supporters by being antiwar, condemning Vietnam, and empathizing with people that looked toward communism while capitalist powers were invading their countries.[8] His position was not unlike that which set former-presidential candidates Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders and Libertarian-Republican Ron Paul apart from their compatriots.

When Democrats or Republicans try to co-opt Dr. Martin Luther King’s image or his words to borrow some of the shine of his legacy for their own agendas, they are doing the man, his family, and this country a disservice. As these politicians perpetuate the militarization of police, the privatization of prisons, the destruction of our environment, and moreover endless warfare, they have no claim to his legacy.

One can only hope that they are speaking out of genuine ignorance, a truly ill-informed but candid sentiment, and not just  exploiting the work of a dead man that played a major part in a movement that crossed racial and gender lines and is now multigenerational.  If that is the case, I know of but one solution. Our politicians must study their history, rather than selectively-remember, misinforming their constituents and misrepresenting history.

 

[1] DeNeen L. Brown, “Martin Luther King Jr. met Malcolm X just once. The photo still haunts us with what was lost,” 14 January 2018, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/01/14/martin-luther-king-jr-met-malcolm-x-just-once-the-photo-still-haunts-us-with-what-was-lost/?utm_term=.6a46b3624e4d

[2] Christina Zhao, “Mike Pence Compares Trump to Martin Luther King Jr. On Eve of MLK Day: Both ‘Inspired us to change’,” 20 January 2018, Newsweek, https://www.newsweek.com/mike-pence-compares-trump-martin-luther-king-jr-eve-mlk-day-both-inspired-us-1298644?utm_source=Twitter&utm_campaign=NewsweekTwitter&utm_medium=Social

[3] Coleman Hughes, “Martin Luther King, Colorblind Radical,” Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/martin-luther-king-colorblind-radical-11547769741

[4] Roger L. Simon, “How Would Dr. King Have Felt About ‘Black Lives Matter’?” PJ Media, https://pjmedia.com/diaryofamadvoter/2016/01/17/mlk-versus-blm/1/.

[5] Brian Carey, “Niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Rips ‘Black Lives Matter’ Movement,” Downtrend, 14 August 2015, https://downtrend.com/brian-carey/niece-of-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-rips-black-lives-matter-movement/

[6] Richard Lischer, “What Martin Luther King Jr. would think of Black Lives Matter today,” Washington Post, 4 April 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/04/04/what-martin-luther-king-jr-would-think-of-black-lives-matter-today/

[7] “Martin Luther King, Jr. And the Republican Party,” Republican Views on the Issues, https://www.republicanviews.org/martin-luther-king-jr-and-the-republican-party/; Sean Gorman, “Van Cleave wrongly says Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican,” 25 January 2016, PolitiFact, https://www.politifact.com/virginia/statements/2016/jan/25/philip-van-cleave/van-cleave-wongly-says-martin-luther-king-jr-was-r/; Judd Legum, “No, Martin Luther King was not a Republican – but here’s what he had to say about them,” 28 August 2013, ThinkProgress, https://thinkprogress.org/no-martin-luther-king-jr-was-not-a-republican-but-heres-what-he-had-to-say-about-them-9c29475ef37/

[8] Jarvis DeBerry, “Martin Luther King Jr.’s opposition to Vietnam enraged even some of his allies,” The New Orleans Times-Picayune, https://www.nola.com/opinions/index.ssf/2014/01/martin_luther_king_jrs_opposit.html

[9] Cornel West, “Martin Luther King Jr was a radical. We must not sterilize his legacy,” The Guardian, 4 April 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/04/martin-luther-king-cornel-west-legacy

National Hispanic Heritage Month

Edward Roybal (House.gov)

A Brief Overview

Hispanic Heritage Month has the distinction of not being a traditional month from the Gregorian Calendar. Rather, it is a thirty-day period drawn across September and October, starting in commemoration of revolution, enacted initially as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 – proposed by Edward Roybal of Los Angeles in 1967 – and expanded into Hispanic Heritage Month under Ronald Reagan in 1988, after Esteban Torres of Pico Rivera, CA’s proposal. September 15 was chosen because it represents the date of independence from Spain for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua in 1821; Mexico’s independence from Spain was declared on September 16, 1810 and Chile’s on September 18, 1810. Toward the end of the month is October 12, known to some as Columbus Day, and by others as Indigenous American Day, and Día de la Raza.

The Spanish and Hispanic influence on the United States is evident not just in the ethnic makeup of the modern population, but in the history of the nation-state’s expansion over the last five centuries. The oldest European city which still exists in the United States is Saint Augustine, Florida, founded in 1565 by Spanish Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.[1] While the middle third of the United States was largely a result of the questionably-constitutional Louisiana Purchase between Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte, a great deal of the west coast and far west, became part of the country in the 19th century either as a result of the U.S. war with Mexico (California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado), or in the time preceding it (Texas). But expansionist wars, imbalanced treaties, and violations of the sovereignty of neighboring states are only part of the story. And, at some point soon, we will discuss this violent interventionist history that has been ongoing for three centuries.

The mark of Hispanic communities can be found in the food, dance, and language across the country – from those states formerly belonging to Mexico to midwestern and northeastern cities like Chicago and New York. Pete Rodriguez is among the Hispanic musicians to come out of New York, with his Latin Boogaloo sound a mainstay of the American zeitgeist for fifty-plus years. Cuban immigrant Desi Arnaz helped revolutionize television with his onetime wife Lucille Ball. Comedians and actors such as Cheech Marin and Freddie Prinze helped move Hispanic Americans from the periphery into the cultural spotlight in the mid-20th century. But aside from myriad cultural contributions, Hispanic citizens of the United States have been involved in the countries governance for nearly two centuries. The meaningful gains of popular media are solidified and amplified when the ethnographic makeup of the conventional powerbreakers reflects the diversity of wider demographics. While we have not yet had a Hispanic or Latino U.S. President (excepting, of course, Puerto Rican-Surinamese American Jimmy Smits as Matthew Santos on the West Wing), men and women with ancestry across Latin America have served in the most important national political bodies of this country.

The Senate and the Congress

Larrazolo

Octavio Larrazolo (House.gov)

The first Hispanic U.S. Senator was Octaviano Ambrosio Larrazolo, born in Chihuahua, Mexico on December 7, 1859, and elected in 1928. He helped secure recognition for the Spanish language in public business at the 1910 New Mexico constitutional convention, broke with the Democratic Party in 1911 due to his commitment to equal citizenship for Hispanics, and was also elected as the Republican governor of New Mexico in 1918.[2] The first American-born Hispanic Senator was Dennis Chavez, who represented New Mexico from 1925 to 1962. A graduate of Georgetown Law, he helped pioneer free textbooks in public school as a state representative and, as a member of the U.S. Senate, his contributions to civil rights included the Fair Employment Practices Commission Bill, a workplace anti-discrimination law. In 1950, he was among the first to denounce Senator Joseph McCarthy’s revival of the Red Scare. He now has a statue at the U.S. Capitol.[3]

The first Hispanic Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives was Joseph Marion Hernández. Hernández was born in Florida while it was still a Spanish colony and became an American citizen when it transferred to the control of the U.S. government. He served for less than a year advocating for the rights of Floridians, and eventually settled in Cuba.[4]

pacheco

Romualdo Pacheco (House.gov)

The first full Representative to Congress was José Antonio Romualdo Pacheco, Jr. of California, who served the 45th district from 1877-79, the 46th from 1879-81, and the 47th from 1881-1883. He was born in 1831 to the daughter of a prominent Mexican family and a captain in the Mexican army; his father died five weeks after his birth, and his mother married Scottish sea captain John Wilson. He attended Oahu Charity School in Honolulu from 1838 to 1843, becoming fluent in English and French and having to relearn Spanish on his return home. He was captured near San Francisco in 1846 during the Mexican-American War, and accepted U.S. citizenship in 1848 after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. He and his brother, Mariano, entered local politics at mid-century; Mariano was elected to the state legislature in 1850 and Pacheco served as superior court judge for San Luis Obispo County from 1853 to 1857 and then in the state senate until 1862.[5] He initially worked as a Democrat, but became a Union Party politician in 1861 because he hated slavery and was opposed to Southern secession.[6]

Today there are Americans of Hispanic descent serving in the U.S. Congress in record numbers.[7] There are forty-six total: forty-one in the House, including one Delegate and the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, Jennifer González-Cólon.[8] The five Hispanic members of the U.S. Senate are Marco Rubio of Florida; Robert Menendez of New Jersey; Catherine Marie Cortez Masto of Nevada; Ted Cruz of Texas.[9] Cruz and Rubio’s parents were immigrants from Cuba, and they are both Republican; Democrat Menendez’s parents also came from Cuba.[10] Cortez Masto is also a Democrat, who formerly served under Republican governors Jim Gibbons and Brian Sandoval as Nevada’s Attorney General. Her paternal grandfather immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico.[11]

Things to come

Why wait until the end of the month to publish this? There is a genuine utility to discussing National Hispanic Heritage Month at the end rather than the beginning. While this should be a time of the year where we think more deeply about the forgotten contributions of Hispanics and Latinos to the United States, October 15 should not be the end of discussion. It should be an inspiration to consider these contributions on a regular basis; to continue studying the history of Hispanic Americans beyond this Autumn. This history, within and beyond institutional politics, could never be covered in a single blog post, and so it is our duty to continue to research and report the work of our Hispanic brothers and sisters.

In a time when some of the elected leaders in the U.S. government are using the differences between us to foster political antagonism, it is important to realize that different experiences and perspectives create a more complete picture. Our diversity is a strength, not a weakness. The United States was conquered and compiled by dubious means, but the intended oppressed, ethnic minorities among them, have subverted expectations to help lead this country and create meaningful, positive impact. The least we can do is remember them.

 

Sources

[1] José E. Serrano, Chairman Congressional Hispanic Caucus, 1993-94, “Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-1995,” Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/congress/introduction.html

[2] “Octaviano Larrazolo: A Featured Biography,” The U.S. Senate, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/Featured_Bio_Larrazolo.htm

[3] “Dennis Chavez: A Featured Biography,” The U.S. Senate, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/Featured_Bio_Chavez.htm

[4] “The first Hispanic American to serve in Congress, September 30, 1822,” U.S. House, http://history.house.gov/Historical-Highlights/1800-1850/The-first-Hispanic-American-to-serve-in-Congress/

[5] “Pacheco, Romualdo,” U.S. House of Representatives, http://history.house.gov/People/Listing/P/PACHECO,-Romualdo-(P000003)/

[6] “Pacheco, Romualdo,” U.S. House of Representatives.

[7] Jennifer E. Manning, Senior Research Librarian, “Membership of the 115th Congress: A Profile,” Congressional Research Service, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R44762.pdf

[8] Manning, “Membership of the 115th Congress;” “Hispanic-American Representatives, Senators, Delegates, and Resident Commissioners by State and Territory, 1822-Present,” U.S. House of Representatives, https://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/HAIC/Historical-Data/Hispanic-American-Representatives-and-Senators-by-State-and-Territory/

[9] “Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month,” The U.S. Senate, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/Hispanic_Heritage_Month.htm

[10] Shailagh Murray and Karen DeYoung, “Momentum Grows for Relaxing U.S. Policy on Cuba; Bill Would Lift Travel Ban,” The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/29/AR2009032902460.html?noredirect=on

[11]

“Transmissions from the Edge of the Abyss: Mexico 1968,” a lecture by Luis M. Castañeda

 

The Villanova University Latin American Studies program hosted Art historian and former Syracuse design professor Luis M. Castañeda for their first major event of the school year. His talk commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the student massacre at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, Mexico, a tragedy that nearly-coincided with the Mexico City Olympics. These coalescing events are also the subject of his recent book, Spectacular Mexico: Design, Propaganda, and the 1968 Olympics. His talk focused on the concept of total design and the ways in which Olympiad architecture, advertising design, and organizational planning combined to create a spectacle which the oppressive PRI regime used to suppress resistance and international awareness of civil unrest.

Dr. Castañeda began by showing a photo of a piece of “fake news” from El Tiempo, a Spanish-language paper from New York City. This 1968 issue was headlined “Detienen Telegrafista del “Che” en Complot Para Hacer Fracas en la Olimpiada en Mexico;” “Che’s telegraphist detained in plot to cause trouble in the Olympiad in Mexico.” Allegedly – and non-factually – a telegraphist associated with Ernesto Guevara was captured while trying to stop the Olympic torch making it to Mexico. This lie was in line with the tumult of the times.

The path of the Olympic torch, a ritual of transportation which signifies the globally-unifying aspect of the games, seemed to follow the path of the conquest of Mexico. After starting in Greece, the torch went through Iberia, crossed the Atlantic, and stopped in the Bahamas before stopping on Mexico’s eastern coast and heading inland. At the stop in the Bahamas, there was a shrine built around the cauldron which reflected both the radiant design of the 1968 Olympics as well as the architecture and symbolism of the pre-Hispanic civilizations. This hybridization was a recurring theme.

The Games of the Sixteenth Olympiad were the third summer Olympics held in the autumn, the first held outside of Europe or North America, and the first held in a Latin American country. These Olympics were cloaked in controversy, named by Sports Illustrated magazine as “The Problem Olympics.” For instance, they were the first Olympics where Germany appeared as two separate entities – the NATO-aligned German Federation and the USSR-allied Democratic Republic of Germany. The inclusion of Apartheid South Africa was also controversial. The formally-racist nation was invited on the condition that race and discrimination would be eliminated from all sports in the country by 1972, but other African countries, African-American athletes, and the entire Eastern Bloc promised to boycott if they participated. Franco’s fascist Spain initially planned to boycott the games before deciding to show-up, before appeals from Mexico’s government under Gustavo Díaz Ordaz Bolaños secured their participation.

Pedro Ramírez Vázquez was the president of the organizing committee of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Dr. Castañeda described Vázquez as the most prolific Mexican architect of his time – he was responsible for designing most Mexican federal government buildings for three decades. Mr. Vázquez’s Olympics were marked by an aesthetic and cultural convergence of 20th-century and pre-Hispanic Mexico. For instance, the opening ceremony in Teotihuacan utilized the New Fire ritual. This custom marked the end of a temporal cycle for multiple pre-Cortez indigenous Mexican peoples.

 

 

HipStamp

(Stamp commemorating the Games, HipStamp)

This exemplified what Dr. Castañeda described as a “narrative of time travel” woven through the tapestry of these Olympics. The Olympic Stadium itself was built in the middle of University City in Mexico City, the heart of unrest and student protests, showcasing the multiple, conflicting ways different people used the same sites. It was built on a pre-Hispanic site in a vast bed of cooled lava that came from a volcanic eruption which marked the mythological-historical beginning of time for many pre-Hispanic groups.

The Mexico City Olympics invoked many parallels with the 1910 centennial of 1810’s War of Mexican Independence, which itself spurred the 1910 revolution which brought the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party) to power. One of the most notable parallels was the insistence on “paz,” here ordained as state-sanctioned coercive peace: no unrest, no dysfunction, no instigation, no change.

In 1910, Mexican dictator Porifirio Díaz staged propaganda photoshoots across Mexico City to show the nation’s progress through the city’s literal growth and spread. One remarkable photo displayed the metropolitan cathedral lit up with thousands of lights, with one steeple expressing “1810, Libertad” and its opposite displaying “1910, Progreso,” with the church house in the middle displaying “Paz.” The implication here is that liberty was established in 1810, but now it was a time for peace, progress, and order. Much as Teotihuacan was used in 1968, it was a staging ground for propaganda photos in 1910.

Map of Competition Sites

(Spectacular Mexico)

1968 saw the utilization of an “ideal geography” expressed through the way Olympic city maps were color-coded to direct traffic from Olympic event site to Olympic event site. The intent was to coral the visiting audience to avoid them viewing instability. Total design was a part of all of this. The 1968 Olympics were the first to have a unified global logo, a tradition that has been continued in every Olympics since. The simplistic, radiating design was used in stamps and postcards, in all sorts of Olympic advertising. It was also co-opted by protestors who grafted the simple elegance into their own work protesting the national condition.

In the end, the spectacle worked. The sanitization of space and ideas through architecture and design made Mexico look like a country on the rise. Mexico appeared to be an emerging power on the world stage rather than a country which was mismanaging money that could be redistributed for needed social programs to pay for an international sports tournament.

In the Q&A, Dr. Castañeda was able to expand on some of these ideas. The 1968 Olympics showed a continuity with the 1910 political moment, especially in the sense of the ruling class trying to prevent another revolution, as had come about at the centenary of the war for independence. The 1968 Summer Olympics showed a coherence between policing and design – all architecture, especially officially-produced culture, especially in cities reflects a psychology deeper than the shaping of raw materials, which is revealed with the deeper analysis of context. The Plaza de las Tres Culturas where protestors were shepherded and massacred was designed as the perfect place for an ambush.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 1968 Olympics also anticipated a pattern that continues today in the way that authoritarian regimes use spectacles to project progress and security to the world. This was a major talking point at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The dialogue at these moments disclosed a social awareness among some in the media and around the world that the regimes in these places were cultivating an image in the way that they constructed barriers to vision. The gaze of the general visiting public was directed to the unifying moments of sports competition. Dr. Castañeda stressed that the archival record, and the ideas of the organizers – if not the designers – show an intent in the 1968 Olympics to contain unrest. Restriction was not the only thing involved in the organization and design, but it was a dimension.

Another noteworthy parallel with Russia and Brazil in recent years is the way in which consecutive sporting tournaments are used to showcase progress, modernity, social cohesion, and security. After the 1968 Olympics, Mexico hosted the 1970 World Cup. Before the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the Russian city of Sochi hosted the Winter Olympics in 2014. After the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro hosted the 2016 Summer Olympics. Dr. Castañeda said that it is likely, given his reading of their respective Olympic hosting proposal packages, that Brazil drew direct inspiration from Mexico. He also said that, while there is some consistency across time, the relevance of sport to the world at large has changed and that it is important to be specific in context as a historian, to be aware of the historical differences and nuances as well as the similarities.

Figura-3-Volante-de-protesta-del-movimiento-estudiantil-de-1968-coleccion-particular

(Protest art,Research Gate)

Dr. Castañeda was prompted to comment on the current political situation in Mexico – specifically, what it means that the incoming president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that he would never use violent, repressive force against the citizens of Mexico like Díaz Ordaz did fifty years ago. Dr. Castañeda noted that “the political quarter” out of which the new president emerges was the resistance group of 1968. Moreover, a lot of the contemporary political currents were galvanized by this event. It could be taken as an innocuous statement – who would disagree with a condemnation of brutal repression against a civilian population? – as well as commemoration of the events half a century ago. We cannot, regardless, presume the authenticity of feeling. Dr. Castañeda pointed out that, much as the relationship of sports with the zeitgeist has changed, the political landscape is totally different now than it was in 1968. It is more fragmented and chaotic: in 1968, there was not a powerful coalition of drug cartels. These are, as Dr. Castañeda put it, “completely different political universes.”

It is crucial to remember how different the world is just as it is important to remember how much it has stayed the same. Mexico City 1968 is a historical setting which demonstrated the ways in which the political will of people like Pedro Ramírez Vázquez can do the bidding of an authoritarian regime to distract the masses from state violence through spectacle. As students were massacred for demanding a more equitable and socially-just distribution of resources, the world was silent and unknowing.

 

As Dr. Castañeda pointed-out, we live in an era when it is ever-easier to police people. Peace can be conflated with order, while some conflate the tone of political discourse with its substance. Information and knowledge have been widely-democratized by social media, but fake news has proliferated as well. In 2018, as in 1968, spectacle is often a substitution for substance when nation-states are trying to demonstrate progress. The lessons of 1968 are myriad – social movements and political dissidence erupted across the globe. But Mexico City 1968 shows a peculiar example of the way in which our passion for entertainment can be used against us, while people go starving and are murdered by militarized police.

Tenth-Annual Lore Kephart Lecture: “The Education of Grace Halsell: An Intimate History of the American Century” by Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley

the education of ms grace halsell

Robin KelleyOn Tuesday, October 2, 2018, honored guest Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley of UCLA discussed the topic of his newest book, Grace Halsell, in the Villanova Room of the Connelly Center. Grace Halsell described herself as a contemporary Candide in a memoir pitch to editor Martin Levin near the end of her life. Candide is Voltaire’s satire of the philosophy of optimism and critique of European imperialism, wherein the titular protagonist travels the world and learns about the price of European luxury for conquered and exploited peoples. Halsell used this reference unironically, because – as Dr. Kelley explained – Grace Halsell lived a life “profoundly shaped by the conceits of U.S. global power.”

Her father, Harry H. Halsell was part of the generation which finished the conquest of the west. Despite their limited means, Grace grew up with an African-American house servant and White Supremacy was an uncontested value in the home.

Grace Halsell was born in Lubbock, Texas in 1923, and from an early age showed a penchant for writing and journalism. She was the editor of both her junior high newspaper Cowboy World and her high school newspaper Western World. She won an award in high school for a 1940 article which criticized the building of the Maginot Line. Her overall tone was echoed in Henry Luce’s 1941 LIFE Magazine article, “The American Century.” Grace Halsell attended Texas Tech College (now Texas Tech University) in Lubbock from 1939 to 1942, Columbia University in New York City from 1943 to 1944, and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas from 1945 to 1951. Between TTU and Columbia she had a brief, unsuccessful marriage with an angry, sometimes-violent man twenty-two years her senior. She never remarried.

Halsell was an advocate of the U.S. neo-imperialist role as an advocate for peace and prosperity in the world. She began traveling Europe in 1942, eventually being stationed in Tokyo, Japan to travel across East Asia. She worked as a journalist writing stories for papers like the Houston Post about Texans abroad. She also wrote an English-language column for La Prensa in Lima, Peru. It was in this period during the 1950s that she also began to question Cold War gender and sex norms – she once had her passport revoked because she rebuffed a U.S. official’s unwelcome advances.

While proposing a story to learn about the “working girl in six capitals” to try to visit Moscow, she was approached by the CIA to spy for them – they alerted her that they had been spying on her and knew about an illicit affair she had with a journalist in Korea that culminated in an abortion. She was appalled by the idea, still believing herself to be a member of the free press despite being employed by the military, as all foreign correspondents were.

In Vietnam in 1965, she first began to critique U.S. foreign policy, and she had the deft touch to do it without the sort of personal editorializing that would get her in trouble. After seeing wounded women and children in hospitals, she asked a doctor how he felt about the US and South Vietnamese attacks on women and children, to which he responded, “women and children can be Viet Cong too.” Halsell let the quote stand on its own in her writing.

The doctor’s dehumanized view of Vietnamese people answered questions that Halsell asked in personal letters that Dr. Kelley analyzed. “How can we do this?” she asks, seeing that it is because of elision, the ability to make the Vietnamese seem invisible.

Later that year, Halsell started work in the White House as an assistant press secretary. Despite her mounting frustration with Vietnam, she did not see the Johnson administration as at fault – she held the generals at fault, and associated LBJ almost-exclusively with the programs that made up the Great Society. Her immediate boss, James Moyers, considered her “overly ambitious,” “brazen and aggressive with men,” and noted that she “devotes much of her office time to her own personal writing.” While that last criticism was accurate, her real crime was that she stood up to her male coworkers.

At the White House, Halsell met Zephra Wright, an African-American woman employed as a cook. Wright was required to do the dangerous job of driving the President’s dogs from Washington, D.C. to Texas through the Deep South with no lodging. Zephra’s experiences inspired Halsell to write Soul Sister, her claim to fame beginning on this track in what Dr. Kelley described as “racial masquerade.” Dr. Kelley stated this was when she really became a writer; it was the first time she could be free of the constraints the military-industrial complex put on journalists.

Soul Sister was partially-inspired by John Howard Griffith’s Black Like Me, where the white journalist went to the deep south while disguised as an African-American. Griffith gave his blessing, and Halsell referred to him – ironically, problematically – as “Soul Brother number one.” Halsell underwent a chemical process to alter her skin tone and lived in Harlem and Mississippi. Dr. Kelley concludes that her experiences show the possibilities and limitations of radical empathy, that true understanding required more critical thinking and analysis than she put toward the project.

Nonetheless, it was a revelatory experience, one which challenged the idea of racism being a problem only in the Southern United States. Granted, she maintained her own naïve liberal conception of racism – concluding that familiarity bred some acceptance, and furthermore that racist oppression was more of a psychological than an institutional problem.

Halsell documented the Black attempt to practice normative behavior in the abnormal conditions of white supremacy. Her book had a generally positive reception, but she was surprised by the negative perception of some Black people. Dr. Kelley did not dive too deeply on why this idea was problematic, probably because it seemed implicit and obvious. Pretending to be a Black person on a limited time basis is not the same as living the life of a Black person.

There have been Black people since Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northrup writing their own stories. In the first half of the twentieth century, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison were among the authors and poets whose work expressed the harsh realities of being Black in America. Halsell’s inability – and the further inability of the wider American reading public – to recognize that work reflects a greater insistent sociocultural problem across American history with alienation, misunderstanding, and othering.

Halsell, in fact, did know this – and did not claim to truly know the experience, but the television interviews she had presumed she had some prescription for the end of racial hostility in America, which led to her espousal that it was a psychological issue.

One of the strangest things she concluded during this project was that racist white men desired her in Mississippi because they believed she was sexually available by virtue of her race. Meanwhile, she found that Black men in Mississippi were more attracted to her upon finding she was actually white. These sorts of revelations led her to use race as a lens to analyze sex and gender in her next book – 1972’s Black/White Sex.

In 1973 she released Bessie Yellowhair – she adopted the titular identity, with permission, from a Navajo woman at the reservation where her brother worked as an attorney. Prior to the racial masquerade, she lived with the Yellowhair family for a time, learning about their culture and identity. Unfortunately, the conditioning did not inadequately prepare her, as after taking a job as a domestic worker in California, racism and condescension had her crumbling within days.

She felt that the African-American experience required only skin-darkening, while being an indigenous American required psychological conditioning, which is an incredibly problematic and reductive way to look at the plights of these groups of people. She fetishized Native Americans broadly, looking at them as a primitive and mythical people. She was aware of, but did not address, the Indian Movement for political power, failing to address the Alcatraz occupation and the March of Broken Treaties. The book was not universally beloved but was notable for being praised by both Native American activist Vine Deloria and Conservative politician Barry Goldwater, which Dr. Kelley described as “probably the only time they ever agreed on something.”

Five years later, Halsell released The Illegals, based on her experiences crossing the Rio Grande between Texas and Northern Mexico illegally three times. She thought of the border war as an extension of Vietnam and anticipated the militarization of the border as part of an imperial conflict. In the time leading up to the Reagan Administration in the 1980s and the rejection of progressivism on the stage of U.S. politics, this book was looked at by some right-leaning critics as ‘too sympathetic’ to immigrants.

Halsell came up with more exotic book plans, among them to travel Antarctica alone and trace the Apostle Paul’s travels across the Roman empire, but she was repeatedly rejected by publishers. Eventually, her ideas led to 1981’s Journey to Jerusalem.

Halsell initially wanted to write exclusively about Palestinians, but had to change the proposal to living with Christians, Jews, and Muslims across Palestine-Israel. Editors and critics were not keen on her perspective of “empathy for all” and she began to realize that politics of empathy required solidarity and choosing sides. In her time traveling among Palestinians, she documented abuses by Israel and was almost killed by an Israeli soldier. She tried to render Israeli settlers sympathetic in her book, but privately expressed disdain. She called-out racism and imperial colonialism. The book was not promoted; her editor was either fired or forced to resign. It received enough of a positive reaction to begin to be taken seriously, and was subsequently panned; months into her book tour, she was accused of anti-Semitism and was blacklisted.

Her next book was called Prophecy and Politics, alternatively subtitled Military Evangelists on the Road to Nuclear War and The Secret Alliance Between Israel and the Christian Right. In the United States, Halsell, an ever-faithful Protestant went undercover as a member of Jerry Falwell’s far-right Christian Evangelical sect, exposing some of the connection between American neo-Zionist Christianity and US foreign policy with Israel.

In 1996 she wrote In Their Shoes, a hastily-composed memoir, an amalgam of vignettes from the other books. The haste came from her diagnosis with multiple myeloma the year before. At the end of her life, she was concerned about her connections with people, and intimacy. Her private letters show her writing about aging, pain, and the happiness she found with her 42-year-old lover.

Dr. Kelley expanded on Halsell’s message and meaning in the Q&A. He ended the main lecture by noting that Halsell came to understand the need for humanity to cultivate its garden, and expressed in the Q&A that the garden we need to cultivate is not of one gender or race or identity, but it is the world. He said that Halsell got a lot wrong in her prescriptions, but she tried to answer questions about how to unite contentious factions of society.

Dr. Kelley contended that it is not the things that we have in common, but the things that are different than us that are important. Those are things we have to come together around.

He said, “I don’t always write about people that have arcs,” i.e. “people that aren’t likeable.” Dr. Kelley usually writes about movements, and Halsell was not, as he put it, a “joiner” of movements, except for the Americans for Middle East Understanding, who she came to after her time in Palestine. Moreover, he was interested in the way in which some of his colleagues took umbrage at the subject – some people presume he is crossing a color line and a sex line, in a way they do not when he writes about Black labor in the 1920s, or Thelonious Monk.

Dr. Kelley’s talk was very elucidating, and it made me interested in a person I would not otherwise have known to be interesting. To me the contradictions and problems of racial masquerade seem almost too obvious to note, but I think Dr. Kelley did not stress the point so much in part because Halsell challenged myriad boundaries in society. Years of racial-undercover work made her truly aware of the limitations of radical empathy. She lived a wild life, lived through the entirety of the Cold War and watched the United States transform from a superpower to the hyperpower. Grace Halsell saw the social justice movements born in the 1960s. She pushed against sexism and saw her own ideas about race evolve as the country’s did, slightly outpacing the ideas of the majority. Grace Halsell was a fascinating human being that lived an incredible life attempting to do something novel in understanding others by very problematic means.

Reviewed: A Brief History of Time

A Brief History of Time (Image from Wikipedia)

In March of this year, scientists, philosophers, and average thinking people the world over reeled at the loss of the brilliant Stephen Hawking. In the immediate wake of his passing, thousands of people directly or indirectly affected by the influence of his work wrote and spoke about what his life meant to them personally. I was listening to a popular culture podcast in the spring and one of its hosts, comic book and magazine writer Marc Bernardine, mentioned a Brief History of Time. Originally released in 1988, but updated in 1996 and 2017, A Brief History of Time is one of Hawking’s preeminent works, focused on breaking down to simplicity the major developments in the history of human discovery in theoretical physics.

The book weaves small bits of personal memoir into the overall historical chronicling because Hawking’s personal interest and involvement provide his perspective. Because he was an extraordinary theoretical physicist, Dr. Stephen Hawking’s recollection of the development of the field includes his own major contributions. Historians are no doubt used to seeing historiographic essays whose authors use the space to contribute new interpretations. Hawking’s approach is parallel, but his contributions and interventions are a different sort of scientific. He is not merely reinterpreting existing facts and discoveries. He is also demonstrating the way in which theoretical physics grew out of baser understandings of the world.

Hawking does his best to simplify incredibly complex theoretical physical concepts. He does this through analogy, metaphor, straightforward examples, anecdotes, and jokes. The concepts build on one another, broken up in eleven chapters from “Our Picture of the Universe” to “The Unification of Physics.” He discusses at length the theory of relativity, quantum physics, string theory, wormholes, time travel, the uncertainty principle, the unification of physics, the origin and fate of the universe, and more.

While he does a better job than many authors would of rendering the content into something digestible, readers that are averse to mathematics or hard, quantitative science might have problems.  There were undoubtedly times when I had to take breaks between large chunks of the book to give my brain some time to work out what I had just read. Hawking’s writing is clear, concise, and witty, so the pages turn easily, and he uses graphs and analogies to illustrate complex scientific concepts. Nonetheless, because of the complexity and gravity of those concepts, it can be an easy book to get lost in. A Brief History of Time is cumulative in the sense that you will not be able to skip around it with much comprehension unless you have a very thorough scientific background. However, if you take it as presented, you will find yourself opening new paths of understanding into another field of worldly analysis.

Hawking begins by recounting a popular anecdote within the scientific community – that a scientist is confronted at a lecture by someone that thinks the universe is as simple as the world sitting on the back of a turtle, and that turtle is sitting on another turtle; it is turtles all the way down. He uses this juncture to pivot into questions about the manner of the human relationship with, and understanding of, the stars. This early chapter covers Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and St. Augustine as well as Hubble and Kant in setting the book’s foundational premises. To summarize their discoveries: the world is round; heavenly bodies rotate around the world; the sun is at the center, not the other; orbits are elliptical, not circular; gravity is a force at work in the world, and the universe is infinite and static; the universe and humanity began around 5000 B.C.

It would be untenable in this space to try to unpack in detail every single advancement in the study of physics that occurred between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries. What Hawking somehow accomplishes in under 200 pages is to generally explain dozens of developments in theoretical physics. This include the Doppler Effect which expresses how light fluctuates as an electromagnetic wave through space-time, Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity, quantum relativity (and the fact that quark is supposed to be pronounced like “quart” but is usually pronounced like “lark”), black holes and dark matter.[1] Hawking contextualizes these discoveries within the historical settings in which they took place – opining, for instance, on how censorship in the USSR stalled peer review for a paper on quantum gravity written in 1981 by his friend Andrei Linde from the Lebedev Institute in Moscow.[2] The overall narrative begins to culminate two-thirds through the book as Hawking makes it apparent that the current challenge of theoretical physics is to combine the as-of-yet seemingly incompatible theories of gravity and special relativity.

Hawking also takes an accommodating stance toward the concept of God. In the first chapter, he refers to the separation of the problem of describing the universe into two parts – “how the universe changes with time” and its initial state.[3] He goes on to say that, some people consider the second question a matter of metaphysics or religion and therefore beyond the scope of hard science:

“They would say that God, being omnipotent, could have started the universe off any way he wanted. That may be so, but in that case he also could have made it develop in a completely arbitrary way. Yet it appears that he chose to make it evolve in a very regular way according to certain laws.”[4]

Hawking also points-out that the Catholic Church adopted the big bang as “in accordance with the Bible” in 1951, preceding a similar pronouncement about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution three years later.[5] This statement is made in the context of the book for the purpose of expressing the scientific dispute over the veracity of the Big Bang, which seemed to some scientists too much like divine intervention. His invocation of God seems to generally be in the interest of refuting people that would choose to limit inquiry based on the idea that God set things up in a way beyond our understanding. “This would certainly have been within the power of an omnipotent being,” Hawking writes, “but if he had started it off in such an incomprehensible way, why did he choose to let it evolve according to laws that we could understand?”[6] When explaining the law of entropy (that things naturally become more disorderly over time) in the context of the “Arrow of Time” chapter, he explores the human conception of time, arguing that if God had set the universe to eventually become less disordered then the psychological arrow of time for people would run backwards.[7]

Rather than being an atheist polemic like Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion on one hand, or a peer review-failing creationist diatribe like Darwin’s Black Box on the other, Hawking simply relates scientific study and gives the option that a deity could have existed at the universe’s beginning. Essentially, he is attempting to work outside of the parameters that some put on science when looking for a conflict where there is only reason. He concludes that if a complete universal theory is at some point discovered, then “philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people” would be able to consider the question of why the universe exists, and an answer would amount to “know[ing] the mind of God.”[8] It is an interesting note to end on, and one wonders what compelled Hawking to be inclusive about the possibility of a higher being.

In fact, Hawking was an avowed atheist by the end of his life, according to interviews he gave with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo inquiring about that exact quote. He clarified that he meant that “we would know anything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.”[9] He believed that “science offers a more convincing explanation” than God for the organization of the universe.[10] Nonetheless, that interview came out between editions of the book. Hawking could have changed it and he chose not to add such a clarification to the actual text; he added chapters in 1996, and forewords and appendices in 1996 and 2017, but he never felt it necessary to imbibe the book with anti-religious thought. The theories he sets-out to express stand on their own without need of polemic.

After the book’s conclusion, there are short biographies of major contributors to our understanding of time and space, an appendix which explains some deeper scientific concepts, a glossary, and acknowledgments. First there are short biographical essays about Albert Einstein, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton. The slightly-longer appendix explains some scientific concepts in further depth. They are “Dark Energy and the Accelerating Expansion of the Universe,” “Microwave Background Radiation and the No Boundary Proposal,” “Eternal Inflation and the Multiverse,” “Gravitational Waves,” and “The Information Paradox.” The section concludes with the “Outlook,” in which Hawking states that the two intervening decades between updates to the book have seen incredible new discoveries in cosmology, some anticipated (gravitational waves), some not (dark energy), and that all signs are pointing increasingly in the direction of the existence of a multiverse.[11] He states that, while some might find it unsettling that our universe is likely just one of many, we can “be proud to be part of a species that is working all this out.”[12]

I mentioned before that there were memoirist influences in the book. Overall, however, Hawking does not focus on himself too much. He briefly mentions his marriages, and he mentions being diagnosed with ALS, but he inundates his audience neither with romantic notions nor in his medical trials. A deeper look at Stephen Hawking the human being would probably be found in his 2013 My Brief History, which apparently borrows a naming convention from this work.

His tone throughout the book is a sort of factual optimism that renders the overall tale compelling in a way that it might not have been by another author’s pen. While not a conventional work of history – there are not footnotes, archival research, or oral interviews – it nonetheless narrates scientific discovery, and the change in interpretation, over time. It also serves as a historical artifact of the development of theoretical physics because the author’s understanding of what was scientifically plausible changed between editions. There are probably better books for a deep dive into scientific history, but for a casual read primer on physics from one of the late, great authorities, we could hardly ask for more.

[1] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, New York: Bantham Books (1988, 1996, 2017), 67.

[2] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 135.

[3] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 11.

[4] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 11.

[5] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 49.

[6] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 127.

[7] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 150, is where God is referenced. 149: “There are at least three different arrows of time.” Thermodynamic arrow: increase in entropy/disorder. Psychological arrow: the way humans relate to time; our ability to remember the past, but not the future. Cosmological: the direction of time in which the universe expands.

[8] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 191.

[9] Alan Boyle, “I’m an Atheist’: Stephen Hawking on God and Space Travel,” NBC, https://www.nbcnews.com/science/space/i-m-atheist-stephen-hawking-god-space-travel-n210076

Pablo Jáuregi, “Stephen Hawking: ‘No hay ningun Díos. Soy un ateo,” El Mundo, http://www.elmundo.es/ciencia/2014/09/21/541dbc12ca474104078b4577.html

[10] David Edwards, “Stephen Hawking comes out: ‘I’m an atheist’ because science is ‘more convincing’ than God,” RawStory, https://www.rawstory.com/2014/09/stephen-hawking-comes-out-im-an-atheist-because-science-is-more-convincing-than-god/

Pablo Jáuregi, “Stephen Hawking: ‘No hay ningun Díos. Soy un ateo,” El Mundo, http://www.elmundo.es/ciencia/2014/09/21/541dbc12ca474104078b4577.html

[11] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 207.

[12] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 208.