Happy New Year, and a Personal Reflection at the Close of My Fourth Decade

Signs on a post off Mountain View Road, rising out of the Anderson Valley, California

Today is the last day of 2016, and my last day in my 30’s.

It feels significant, somehow, turning 40.

Perhaps it’s because my love of history and my long background in collecting, buying and selling vintage goods. They’ve put me in the habit of organizing things into chunks of time: decades, centuries, eras. It’s a useful tool, even if a blunt one, since of course events and styles don’t come into and out of existence based on the turn of a calendar page. But the human mind looks for patterns existent in nature, which leads to the impulse to impose more precise ones on top of those, artificial even as they’re based on natural phenomenon. The calendar year traces the earth’s yearly rotation around the sun, and units of ten reflect the number of fingers we’ve used to count since our infancy.

As I enter my fifth decade of life, I’m looking forward to big changes. It’s been my habit generally to follow my whims, whatever sparked my interest and excited my imagination at the moment, wherever they’ve led, much as the Native Americans of the plains (which I’m reading about now) followed wherever the buffalo herds, fresh water, and new grasses led them. This free-spirit predisposition has given me a varied life, often an exciting one. But my tendency to take the short view has also hampered me in many ways, since pursuing a meaningful career, achieving larger goals, and making enough money to fund them usually demands strategic planning and sacrificing short term needs and desires. And the lack of long term strategy and planning has often severely frustrated my deeper desires for the former. Sometime luck smooths our way and facilitates our talents and passions, such as landing the right job, meeting the people who can help us, inheriting money or having the knack for making it, or hitting upon the right invention or idea which meets the need or captures the imagination of the public. But sometimes, we need to make our own luck in other ways.

I love what I do and pursue my interests as avidly as time allows, but I’ve found myself driven and bothered by a sense of ambition new to me. I suppose I’m one of those late bloomers, at least I hope so. I wish, no, need, to bloom. I’m not satisfied any longer cramming the pursuit of my deepest interests into the scraps of time left to me before and after the hours I’m busy making a living. Don’t get me wrong, I value what I do for a living: I believe I’ve done good, honest work, I’ve learned so much from my jobs, and I’m grateful for the opportunities. But I also believe I can accomplish some things more in line with my particular talents and passions if I impose more and much-needed discipline upon myself, and place myself in situations where I can meet others who share my passion for this kind of learning. I have so much learning to do, knowing only enough to realize I know so little.

So I’ve prepared for my return to academic studies and applied to many grad schools, casting my nets widely and ambitiously, waiting with baited breath to see what comes of it. My education is drawn out and rather piecemeal, but I’m hoping some great institution(s) of learning will do me the honor of finding my body of work, both academic and independent, compelling enough to place their faith in me. The last time I returned to university was one of the richest, most exciting, and most satisfying parts of my life, and I’m looking forward to my next immersion in learning with the greatest excitement.

In the meantime, I’m celebrating the turn of the year and of the next decade of my life quietly on a little camping trip, one of my favorite things to do. I’m feeling reflective so I’m not partying, which I’ve so enjoyed doing for past New Years’. I love carefree conversation, carousing a little, and dancing with my friends. But somehow, this feels like a different sort of occasion.

Happy New Year, my dear friends, family, and all of you who take an interest in my work. I thank you all sincerely, and with much love. I hope this year satisfies the deepest needs and desires of your minds and hearts.

~ Amy Cools

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 3 Part 1

Margaret Sanger with Fania Mindell inside Brownsville clinic, forerunner of Palanned Parenthood, Oct. 1916, public domain via Library of Congress

Margaret Sanger with Fania Mindell inside Brownsville clinic, forerunner of Planned Parenthood, Oct. 1916

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

I get out in decent time to start the day’s explorations, just after eight, but it’s not long before I realize I’m tired and hence, a little cranky. My friends and I watched the third Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debate last night and some of the commentary which followed, then finally went to sleep very late after we talked about what we just watched, and other things. I’m mostly on New York time now, but not quite.

The abortion issue came up almost immediately in the debate since the first question from the moderator was about the Supreme Court and the appointment of justices. Trump pledged to nominate only strongly anti-abortion candidates. Clinton was adamant that Roe v. Wade and laws protecting women’s access to birth control and abortion (with appropriate limitations) be upheld. Clinton also strongly endorsed Planned Parenthood, praising the services it provides and criticizing all efforts to defund it. I, for one, am grateful to Planned Parenthood, the organization that Margaret Sanger founded. Like the women Sanger made it her mission to help, I needed health care that I could not yet afford when I was still in my late teens and early twenties. I found it at Planned Parenthood. I’m grateful to the warm and caring providers there, and I simply did not find what many of the organization’s opponents describe: a ruthlessly pro-abortion, anti-life organization. Instead, I met women who gave me wise and medically-correct advice on all aspects of women’s health, including ways to prevent the need for abortion. That’s entirely in keeping with Sanger’s mission. She was, in fact, anti-abortion, with certain qualifications.

201 and 207 E 57th St, Manhattan NYC, former site of Bandbox Theater, 2016 Amy Cools

201 and 207 E 57th St, Manhattan NYC, former site of the Bandbox Theatre

Adolph Phillip's Fifty-Seventh Street Theater, later the Bandbox Theater, courtesy of Schubert Archives

Adolph Phillip’s Fifty-Seventh Street Theater, later the Bandbox Theater, courtesy of Schubert Archives

I plan to head all the way to White Plains today, but as I’m preparing to buy the ticket at Grand Central Station, I pause to reconsider my day’s plans. In the end, I decide to put the trip on hold: it wouldn’t put my funds and time to best use since I was unable to discover the White Plains site location I sought at the New York Public Library yesterday. I’ll see if I’m more successful when I do more research tonight and perhaps go tomorrow. Instead, I decide to cover the northernmost Manhattan sites on my list after I hit up a few near the southwest end of Central Park that I didn’t get to yesterday.

I walk north towards Central Park and then east, and stop first at 205 E. 57th St near 3rd Ave where the Bandbox Theatre used to stand. Originally named Adolf Philipp’s Fifty-Seventh Street Theatre, the theater that became the Bandbox was built in 1912, closed in 1926, and demolished in 1969. Now there’s a Design Within Reach store and a high rise apartment building here.

On Feb 20th, 1916, Sanger and her supporters held a victory celebration at the Bandbox Theatre. The court had just dismissed the obscenity charges against her for publishing The Woman Rebel that had caused her to flee to Europe the year beforeWhile she was away, many papers had begun to discuss birth control and sex a little more openly, and as you may remember, her daughter had just died suddenly the previous November, soon after Sanger’s return from Europe. Public opinion was swinging to Sanger’s side, and the court no longer had the appetite to pursue a case against her. What had once seemed a public defense against immorality would more likely be perceived as an attack on free speech and emerging modern, scientific attitudes about human sexuality. Even without the court case, however, the arrest and indictments proved an enormous boost to Sanger’s cause. She was portrayed, by herself as well as others, as a sort of free speech and humanitarian martyr, a persecuted champion of the cause of women, especially the poorest and most downtrodden.

14 E 60th Street, with the green awning, NYC, photo 2016 Amy Cools.JPG

14 E. 60th Street, Manhattan, New York City

Then I head northwest to 14 E. 60th St between 5th and Madison Aves. It’s a 13-floor building erected in 1903. Two restaurants, Rotisserie Georgette and Avra Madison Estiatorio, occupy the ground floor, and apartments above. Sanger had been staying at the Ambassador Hotel but moved to one of the apartments at this address on December 17, 1936. Her move here followed on the heels of the birth control movement’s victory in the Dec 7th decision in the One Package case, and not long before Sanger attended the Conference on Contraceptive Research and Clinical Practice that met at the Roosevelt Hotel which, as you may remember, I visited on my first day following Sanger here in New York City.

1935 and 1936 were busy years for Sanger. In addition to the One Package trial, she toured India, speaking to women’s groups and conferences and debating Gandhi there in December of 1935. She continued on to Hong King, then Japan. In Japan, she visited Tokyo’s fledgling birth control clinic founded by her Japanese counterpart Shidzue Ishimoto, and reviewed birth control methods that had been developed in that country since her 1922 visit. While the birth control movement was also beleaguered in that country by law and custom, many Japanese health care professionals were working on new and effective methods of birth control in that island nation where population growth was a constant and pressing concern. In 1932, she had met a Japanese physician at a birth control conference who had developed a new type of diaphragm. He had sent her that package which was intercepted in customs and led to the One Package case finally litigated three years later. She planned to continue her travels in China and Malaysia but had to cut her trip short due to recurring gallbladder trouble, then a broken arm. She stopped for a short visit in Hawaii, then returned to mainland U.S. to rest and recuperate.

The Plaza Hotel, Manhattan, New York City, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

The Plaza Hotel, Manhattan, New York City

I head west towards Central Park then veer south towards its southeast corner to 768 Fifth Ave at 59th St. Three occasions bring me here to the grand Plaza Hotel.

On March 15th, 1917, the National Birth Control League held a luncheon for her here in celebration of her release from Queens County Penitentiary. She had been imprisoned there for 30 days, convicted of violating anti-obscenity laws while operating her birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Then from November 11th – 13th, 1921, the First American Birth Control Conference, organized by Sanger, was held here. The conference was widely attended by medical professionals, social scientists, humanitarians, authors, suffragists, socialists, and socialites. Its list of sponsors was likewise distinguished, including famed Parliamentarian and future Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Sanger gave the opening address, in which she called on the medical profession to join social workers and birth control activists in addressing the sexual dimensions of problems of hunger, poverty, and overpopulation. As she often pointed out, there were plenty of people working hard to alleviate poverty and disease, but there were very few paying attention to their primary root causes: the human need for love and sex. This was the conference which launched the future Planned Parenthood and concluded with the Town Hall event which turned into a police raid. Between the conference and the publicity following the raid, Sanger was firmly placed as the United States’, and indeed the world’s, preeminent birth control activist and spokesperson.

An interior view of the beautiful Plaza Hotel, Manhattan, NYC, 2016 Amy Cools

An interior view of the beautiful Plaza Hotel, Manhattan, NYC

Several years later, on February 26th, 1929, Sanger presided over a dinner promoting the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau. In her opening speech, Sanger outlined the history of her own birth control activism and the struggles and legal battles of the birth control movement in the United States from 1915 until that day. She also credited John Stuart Mill and Francis Place as founders of the modern birth control movement, about a century before her own activism began. Like Sanger, Mill was moved to support birth control by personal horror at the worst effects of children conceived in poverty: at age 17, he came across the corpse of a strangled infant discarded in a park. And like Sanger, Mill believed that when the poor had more children to help make money for the family, wages were inevitably driven down by the glut of laborers seeking employment, leading to a downward spiral of impoverishment and immiseration. So in 1823, young Mill and a friend distributed birth control pamphlets written by his father’s friend and social reformer Francis Place, and were arrested and imprisoned for their trouble.

The Park Lane Hotel and adjoining buildings, Manhattan, New York City, 2016 Amy Cools

The Park Lane Hotel (with the blue flags) and adjoining buildings

I walk a little ways west along the southern end of Central Park to 36 Central Park South, a.k.a. 59th St. Here at the Park Lane Hotel, Sanger delivered her speech ‘My Way to Peace’ to the New History Society on January 17, 1932. In my view, it’s a nasty speech. While Sanger generally insisted that birth control be entirely voluntary, the result of education and the right of women to have control over their own bodies, in this speech she called for coercive sterilization of ‘the unfit’. As Nazism was developed and implemented in the years to come, Sanger opposed it staunchly, sharply criticizing its racial doctrines and opposing its coercive practices. Though she justified it on the grounds of improving public health and decreasing mortality rates, to my mind she was never able to sufficiently explain how her earlier call in ‘My Way to Peace’ for coercive sterilization of ‘mental defectives’, people with certain diseases, and convicted criminals was morally superior to Hitler’s fascist system when it came to these unfortunate and marginalized groups.

New York Tribune Fri Nov 18 1921, Park Theater Cox Speech

New York Tribune, Fri Nov 18 1921, Announcement of Park Theater Margaret Sanger and Harold Cox appearance

One place I miss on this trip is the former site of the nearby Park Theater, near the southwest corner of Central Park, where Harold Cox delivered the Sanger speech he was prevented from making at the Town Hall five days earlier. A New York Tribune announcement describes the location as ‘Columbus Circle near 59th and B’way’ (Broadway). As I consult the 1923 Bromley atlas I’ve been consulting for much of this series, I don’t find the Park Theater. Later, I search through an earlier edition of the Bromley Atlas and this time, I’m in luck. The Park Theater, renamed the Cosmopolitan Theater by 1923, was on 58th St, the second address to the west of Eighth Ave, its northeast corner at Columbus Circle at the southwest edge of Central Park. It stood where the Time Warner Center now faces onto 58th St, about where Google Maps identifies 322 W. 58th St.

In 1944, Sanger reminisced:

‘…Birth control, fifteen, twenty years ago was a lurid and sensational topic… The very term was one not mentioned in polite society, thanks to Anthony Comstock who had Congress classify it with “obscene, and filthy literature”… Our struggles lacked the dignity they have today. Back in 1921, Harold Cox, brilliant member of the English Parliament and Editor of the Edinburgh Review was to speak with me at that early forum of free speech, Town Hall. Our subject was “Birth Control: Is it Moral?”

Entrance of the Park Theater, formerly the Majestic, Columbus Circle, 59th St, NY, courtesy of MCNY

Entrance of the Park Theater, formerly the Majestic, at Columbus Circle, photo courtesy of MCNY

With astonishing directness Roman Catholic Archbishop Patrick J. Hayes, through his emissary Monsignor Joseph P. Dineen, closed the meeting before it even opened. We had grown accustomed to opposition, from the combination of the Comstock group …with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but never had the interference been so brutally direct before. Time and again theatres, ballrooms where I was to speak were ordered closed before the meeting could be held. In city after city this occurred during the years 1916, ‘17 and ‘18, but the climax was the now famous Town Hall incident which raised the issue throughout the country. Can one in public office use the power of that office to further his personal religious beliefs?

Mr. Cox and I were met at the steps of the Town Hall that evening by policemen, barred from entering and told, “There ain’t gonna be no meeting. That’s all I know…

We had the hierarchy to thank for so publicizing our meeting that the second held shortly after, at the big Park Theatre in Columbus Circle was packed fifteen minutes after a single door was opened. Two thousand people, many of whom had never heard of birth control before Cardinal Hayes gave it nation-wide publicity, stood outside clamoring to get in…”

I descend into the subway station at Columbus Circle and take the A train north, almost to the top of Manhattan Island. There are many sites on my list from Inglewood all the way back down to the southern end of Central Park, so I decide to visit them from north to south…

To be continued….

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration: 

14 East 60th Street‘, from 42Floors website

About Sanger: Biographical Sketch‘, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University.

Another Look at Margaret Sanger and Race‘, Feb 23, 2012. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Bandbox Theatre: East 57th Street near Third Avenue, New York, NY‘, International Broadway Database

Blake, Aaron. ‘The Final Trump-Clinton Debate Transcript, Annotated.’ Oct 19, 2016, The Washington Post: The Fix

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the Borough of Manhattan, City of New York. Desk and Library edition, 1916, Plate 87 . Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the City of New York, 1921 – 1923, Plate 82 and Plate 87. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992

Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014.

Gopnik, Adam. ‘Right Again: The Passions of John Stuart Mill‘. Oct 6 2008, The New Yorker

Grimaldi, Jill. ‘The First American Birth Control Conference‘, Nov 12, 2010. The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Guillin, Vincent. Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill on Sexual Equality. Brill: Boston, 2009.

International Theatre: 5 Columbus Circle (W. 58th & 59th), New York, NY‘, International Broadway Database

Mrs. Sanger Glad She Was Indicted‘, New York Tribune, Feb. 21, 1916, p. 2, via The Margaret Sanger Papers Project, NYU

New-York Tribune, two selections from Nov 18, 1921, page 11: ‘Birth Control Appeal Fails to Move Enright‘ and ‘You Are Invited to Hear Margaret Sanger… New York, New York. Via Newspapers.com

On the Road with Birth Control‘, Newsletter #21 (Spring 1999) of The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Pokorski, Robin. ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger‘ from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Regan, Margaret. ‘Margaret Sanger: Tucson’s Irish Rebel.Tucson Weekly, Mar 11, 2004.

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Birth Control: Then and Now,’ 1944, Typed Article. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Gandhi and Mrs. Sanger Debate Birth Control,’ Recorded by Florence Rose, published in Asia magazine, Vol. 26, no. 11, Nov. 1936, pp. 698-702

Sanger, Margaret. ‘My Way to Peace,’ Jan. 17 1932. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger, an Autobiography. Cooper Square Press: New York 1999, originally published by W.W. Norton & Co: New York, 1938

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Opening Address for Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau Dinner‘, Feb 26, 1929. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Margaret Sanger Microfilm S71:153.

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version courtesy of Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013

Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company

New Podcast Episode: Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 1 Part 3

roosevelt-hotel-exterior-view-manhattan-nyc-photo-by-amy-cools-2016

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016, continued

I continue north to the Roosevelt Hotel at Madison Ave and E. 45th Street. Margaret Sanger attended the Conference on Contraceptive Research and Clinical Practice that met here on December 29th and 30th, 1936. She delivered a welcoming speech on the 29th and spoke on a panel the next day which discussed technical and medical birth control issues. While The New York Times reported optimistically on the effectiveness of birth control methods available at the time and Sanger spoke proudly of the ‘56,000 women who have voluntarily appealed to us for help’, she and many of the attendees knew that the lack of access to and effectiveness of birth control remained big problems. It was still fairly expensive; anti-obscenity laws were barriers to access and information in those pre-Griswold years; and too many of the methods were only moderately effective since they were not always easy to use correctly, especially in well, you know, the heat of the moment…. Read the written version here:

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A Woman’s Work: Ann Plato’s Republic, by Sara Georgini

phillis-wheatley-silhouette-william-kingShe was named for the ship that stole her away. At seven years old, Phillis Wheatley crossed the Atlantic from West Africa, another dot in the mosaic of roughly six million enslaved Africans who landed in the Americas between 1700 and 1808. Small and so young, she became Boston merchant John Wheatley’s gift to wife Susannah. Early on, Phillis’ talent shone. She mastered Latin and Greek, earning transatlantic praise for her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first book of poetry by an African-American, published in London in 1773. She sat for an author portrait, toured England, met George Washington, and, finally, secured her freedom before dying, impoverished, in 1784.

Early Americans and early Americanists have pored over her too-brief career ever since. Phillis Wheatley’s byline alone, threading together her sacrifice and her sale, bears hard history in it. As an African-American founding mother of our national literary tradition, Wheatley owns a leading role in survey classes, public statues, and cultural memory. Wheatley’s last manuscript, 300 pages of poetry, may be lost; but we hold pieces of her legacy intact. Here at the Massachusetts Historical Society, I pass by her writing desk nearly every day. It’s not the one in her formal portrait. Rather, it’s the mahogany “card or tea table” that John Wheatley gifted Phillis with sometime during her long servitude. Ball-and-claw feet grip the carpet. A neat apron-front drawer has room enough for cards, ink, and a few cottony sheets of colonial paper. Sold at auction to settle her heavy debts, the poet’s desk is a rich artifact of literary technology, an Enlightenment-era laptop. Polished and bare, Phillis Wheatley’s desk raises the question: Who took up her pen?

Today, resuming my series on early American women intellectuals, I’ll focus on Ann Plato, a Hartford, Conn., schoolteacher who was, in many ways, Wheatley’s direct heir. Or so argued the abolitionist preacher James W.C. Pennington in his opening attestation of Plato’s 1841 Essays; Including Biographies and Miscellaneous Pieces, in Prose and Poetry. Pennington, then deep at work on his own book, The Origin and History of the Colored People (1841), made a compelling case for Plato’s historical significance. Of African-American and Native American ancestry, Plato (fl. 1824-1870), had, according to Pennington, suffered in order to persevere as a literary artist. By his lights, Ann Plato therefore joined the ranks of Wheatley, the Roman playwright Terence, and the Jamaican poet Francis Williams. “These all served in adversity,” Pennington reminded readers, “and afterwards found that nature had no objection, at least to their serving the world in high repute as poets… But as Greece had a Plato why may we not have a Platoess?”

For researchers, the long-forgotten, local “Platoess” has proved near-mythic to examine. A great deal of excellent biographical spadework has been done by Ron Welburn, in Hartford’s Ann Plato and the Native Borders of Identity (Albany: SUNY Press, 2015). Ann Plato presents a critical dilemma for scholars, as Welburn points out, since she “left neither entry nor exit signs,” opting to blur her contributions within the historical record. Tracing Plato’s education from eastern Long Island to her Connecticut teaching career, Welburn weaves in the intellectual “places in between,” where Ann Plato also thrived: praying at the Talcott Street (Colored) Congregational Church, publishing poetry in The Colored American newspaper, and––like so many other Americans––possibly wending her way West, to Iowa, in the Reconstruction era. To deal with Plato on any critical level is tough. Though she produced several shorter (and often near/anonymous) pieces, Ann Plato’s legacy rises or falls on her single volume, Essays. Between her conduct book’s rote lines lies a wealth of African-Americans’ sense of experience, education, history. A pastiche of prose parables, morality tales, advice for youths, and poetry humming with political and religious commentary: Ann Plato’s book is at home in the early republic.

Plato’s Essays split along three paths, marked out “Prose,” “Biographies,” and “Poetry.” To read Plato is to sink fully into the antebellum schoolroom. The first section instructs the reader via “lessons from nature,” outlining the Christian principles of education, diligence, and obedience needed to frame a good character. Youth remains the best “season” to cultivate ideal habits. Plato’s voice steers the narrative; she is quiet but firm. In one essay, she frets that her female pupils will favor making a “showy appearance” more than “prizing the gift” of entrance into the “temple of knowledge.” In another piece, she urges students to excel, since “mediocrity is a proof of weakness; and perfection may always be purchased by application.” Like her literary peers, Ann Plato keeps her “Prose” primly aspirational with “Eminence from Obscurity,” a listicle of “great” European men who have “risen from humble stations” and laboring lives to become artists and scholars.

Plato wraps up “Prose” with a trinity of tragic reflections. “Life is Short” documents the first moments of new orphans, in freefall after a family funeral. “Death of the Christian,” a shorter and more ambitious work, namechecks a set of classical and modern references (Caesar, Pollok, Byron, Chesterfield, Addison). There, Plato reels in cultured readers with her impressive grasp of Anglo-American literature. Then she steps back, sealing her conclusion with an appeal to godly virtue. “Learn with what superior dignity of mind a Christian can die,” Plato writes. Certainly, Pennington’s “authoress” knew her audience, for Plato folds lost friends into her saga. The second part, “Biographies,” features short eulogies of four women, all local acquaintances who died young (likely of consumption). Using their lives to reinforce cherished notions of Christian morality and youthful piety, Plato attempts women’s biography with sentimental verve. Industrious, mild, and ever sweetened by death’s approach, Plato’s subjects melt and sway into one another’s path. Plato is more interested in presenting a template than a person, putting her work in line with the religious tracts, advice books, and “manners” novels that fellow New Englanders enjoyed. Then, in the space of a few stanzas, Plato turns inward, and against the crowd.

Ann Plato is best known for her poem, “The Natives of America,” an eloquent reflection on her biracial identity, which features prominently in her Essays’ final pages. Go ahead, read it. Plato opens in a familiar, Longfellow-esque tone, with a child begging for a story from her father’s lap. But the narrative she learns is one of conquest and loss. Here is a key sample: “Wars ensued. They knew the handling of firearms. / Mothers spoke,––no fear this breast alarms, / They will not cruelly us oppress, / Or thus our lands possess. / Alas it was a cruel day; we were crush’d: / Into the dark woods we rush’d / To seek a refuge. / My daughter, we are now diminish’d, unknown, / Unfelt! Alas! no tender tone / To cheer us when the hunt is done; / Fathers sleep––we’re silent every one.” If Plato’s individual eulogies run drab, embroidered with obligatory accents of Christian piety, her reconstruction of the Native American experience is raw, powerful, and worth your read.

Part of why I began this project was to read more early American thinkers who sensed their histories, like Phillis Wheatley’s or Ann Plato’s, were diminished, unfelt, unknown. Reading Ann Plato’s republic is a way to understand the kind of historical figure extolled by Anna Julia Cooper in A Voice From the South (1892), the “open-eyed but hitherto voiceless Black Woman of America.” It’s also a route to retrace how early American women wrote about themselves en route to Seneca Falls, through the Civil War, beyond the cultural upheavals of Reconstruction, and into a modern realm of world literature that Phillis Wheatley glimpsed, far too briefly. For, as “A Lady from Philadelphia,” asked in an 1885 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine: “Why should not the coming novelist be a woman as well as an African? She––the woman of that race––has some claims on Fate which are not yet paid up.”

~ Sara Georgini is a Historian & Series Editor, Adams Papers, @MHS1791. Ph.D., #BU. Views=mine, #history for all (Bio notes credit: author’s own on her Twitter page)

~ This piece was originally published in the Society for U.S. Intellectual History Blog on December 21st, 2016

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Activism is Not Enough: As Long As We Keep Shopping and Don’t Vote, It’s Our Fault Too!

I’m out of town visiting family, and though I’m having a wonderful time, I miss you all and I’m anxious to get some new writing done. In the meantime, here’s a piece I wrote a couple of years ago, I hope you find it of interest!

Ordinary Philosophy

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, a wonderful place to live. It has a rich culture and a thriving music and arts scene and nightlife. It’s surrounded by great natural beauty in all directions: from oak forests to redwood groves, from chaparral to sandy beaches and sea cliffs. It has a fascinating history, plentiful and delicious food, beautiful architecture, and balmy weather. It’s also a liberal ‘bubble’, with an appetite for activism and, for better and for worse, a penchant for righteous outrage.

I admire and identify with the history and the culture of activism. Like the reformers of history and of today, the brave people who fight to create a more just world are among the finest the human race has ever produced. But I’ve been feeling something a bit lacking in activist movements lately. They still march in the streets, and we join them there and online by signing petitions…

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O.P. Recommends: Professor Watchlist Could Make McCarthyism Look Like a Picnic, by Ellen Schrecker

2993d-elementary_school_class_on_american_indian_cultureI heard of Professor Watchlist a little while ago and when I glanced at it, it creeped me out a little: it looked like Yelp for cranks, but I didn’t think much of it. But when I read this letter, I realized it’s an example of something more serious: the sort of self righteous tendency to witch-hunt, on the left and on the right, that the Internet fosters, and that can all too easily destroy reputations and careers. I’m a believer in free speech and the marketplace of ideas, but we all need to keep it a place that fosters liberty too, by keeping a diligent watch on our own and others’ excesses. Let’s make sure that the court of public opinion is not allowed to turn into a kangaroo court.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

On Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion

Here’s a little essay I wrote about two years ago.

Ordinary Philosophy

I was listening to an episode of Inquiring Minds podcast the other day, and in it, cognitive scientist Paul Bloom discusses his and others’ research on the earliest manifestations of morality in human babies, a hot topic in psychology and neuroscience these days.

Near the end of the (fascinating) interview, Bloom discusses the difference between compassion and empathy, as he sees it:

‘..I’m writing a book on empathy now, and I’m against it. I’m arguing that empathy’s a poor moral guide. And it’s… it’s like saying you hate kittens, or you’re in favor of Ann Coulter… it just sounds really weird. But I would make a distinction between empathy and compassion, where empathy is putting yourself in someone’s shoes and feeling their pain. And I think empathy can do good in the short term, but it tends to distort things. It’s racist and parochial, it’s a lot easier for me…

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