Say What? James McCune Smith on African American Art and Culture

Left: James McCune Smith. Right: Nina Simone and James Baldwin, early 1960’s

‘It is the law …that an oppressed minority shall ultimately obtain a ruling influence over their oppressors. …

For we are destined to write the literature of this republic, which is still, in letters, a mere province of Great Britain. We have already, even from the depths of slavery, furnished the only music which the country has yet produced. We are also destined to write the poetry of the nation; for as real poetry gushes forth from minds embued with a lofty perception of the truth, so our faculties, enlarged in the intellectual struggle for liberty, will necessarily become fired with glimpses at the glorious and the true, and will weave their inspiration into song.

We are destined to produce the oratory of this Republic; for since true oratory can only spring from honest efforts in behalf of the RIGHT, such will of necessity arise amid our struggle…’

James McCune Smith, ‘The Destiny of the People of Color’ (1843),
published in The Works of James McCune Smith, 2006

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Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman!

Walt Whitman, age 35, from Leaves of Grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., engraving by Samuel Hollyer from daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsWalt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . . eating drinking and breeding, No sentimentalist . . . . no stander above men and women or apart from them . . . . no more modest than immodest.’ Thus Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) introduces himself to us for the first time in his first self-published 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Not on the cover or on the title page, mind you, but deep within the body of the untitled poem later called Song of Myself. If this is a dialing-back attempt to inject a little respectable humility or yet another self-aggrandizing affectation on the part of this unapologetic egoist, it’s hard to say definitely, though I strongly suspect it’s the latter. It certainly is so-very-American.

Whitman was confident, earthy, crude, and vibrant, a self-styled natural man whose personas were nonetheless carefully crafted. He did his own thing and ‘lived the free life of a rover’ (an Eric Bogle phrase from his great anti-war ballad And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda), working odd jobs as a printer, journalist, teacher, and clerk, among other things. Moved by horror and compassion at the magnitude of death and suffering he observed, he worked some years as a nurse to the Civil War wounded, and spent much of his somewhat meager earnings on supplies for their comfort and care. He remained single but had many lovers, probably mostly homosexual, though he praises the physical beauty and power of women as lavishly in his poems as he does that of men. All the while, starting at just over age 30, Whitman began to write his highly idiosyncratic, free verse poetry celebrating the authentic and the crafted self, the human body, democracy, equality, work, nature, and companionship. He spent the rest of his somewhat long life revising and republishing several editions of Leaves of Grass, up to several months before his death at age 72 in 1892.

To read more work by, about, and inspired by the great Walt Whitman, here are some links and articles:

Leaves of Grass (1855) – by Walt Whitman, published in the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library

Poems – by Walt Whitman at Poets.org

Walt Whitman – by Gay Wilson Allen Alexander Norman Jeffares for Encyclopædia Britannica

Walt Whitman, 1819–1892 – The Poetry Foundation 

The Walt Whitman Archive – by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, Ed., published by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln

and just because I love it:

The Body Electric, song and music video by Hooray for the Riff Raff. The song title is inspired by one of Whitman’s most enduring and controversial poems and is a critique of the traditional murder ballad

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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Happy Birthday, Julia Ward Howe!

Julia Ward Howe, ca. 1855

Julia Ward Howe, poet and activist, was born on May 27, 1819, and lived a long life ever dedicated to social reform.

She’s best known as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the stirring Civil War anthem still sung at military events and in churches today; I remember singing it at Mass growing up. Filled with Biblical imagery, it reminds me of the Old Testament-inspired Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln. In it, he addresses the terrible costs of the war in lives and property, surmising that God’s justice may demand that ‘all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk., and …every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’ in recompense for the terrible sin of slavery.

Howe wrote her Hymn in 1861, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was delivered in 1865. Lincoln is known to have heard the Battle Hymn and reported to have wept when he did. Lincoln was well versed in Scripture and references it liberally in his writings and speeches; nevertheless, he may also have had Howe’s Hymn in mind when he wrote his Address. In any case, both remain prominent in American historical memory, continuing to resonate and inspire today in our Protestantism-derived culture. John Steinbeck uses her Book of Revelation-derived phrase The Grapes of Wrath as the title of his great novel about the suffering of Dust Bowl refugees fleeing to California. The great Leonard Cohen references her Hymn in ‘Steer Your Way’ from You Want It Darker, his final album released shortly before his death last fall. Howe’s lyric ‘As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free’ becomes ‘…let us die to make things cheap.’ Cohen redirects her line to critique today’s great sin of destroying our environment likewise out of greed, complacency, indifference to the fate we’re creating for our descendants, and slavish adherence to the ‘way it’s always been done.’

Julia Ward Howe postcard dated August 28th, 1903, from the Hutchinson Family Scrapbook in the collection of the Lynn Historical Society in Massachusetts. I was here in spring 2016 following the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass. The Hutchinson family dedicated their musical skills to the abolition movement and other reform causes and were friends with many prominent activists of their day. The scrapbook doesn’t note which member of the Hutchinson family Howe wrote this card to.

Read more about this great abolitionist, feminist, and author:

Julia Ward Howe, 1819–1910: BiographyPoetry Foundation

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) – by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum

‘The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe,’ by Elaine Showalter – by Jill Lepore for The New York Times

Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910, Volume 1 – by Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards, Maud Howe Elliott, and Florence Howe Hall, 1915

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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Happy Birthday, Omar Khayyám!

By Adelaide Hanscom, from Edward Fitzgerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1905, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Since Edward FitzGerald published his translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in 1859, Omar Khayyám (May 18, 1048 – December 4, 1131) has been known, especially in the western world, first and foremost as a great poet, eloquently expressing the joy and beauty of life and our own struggles to live it with a sense of love and meaning. It’s a humanist work, with Khayyám writing much as an Epicurean or Skeptic here and a Stoic there, freely doubting and wondering at everything, unshackled from the orthodoxy one might expect from a famed teacher and writer of his time and place. Yet Khayyám, a devotee of Avicenna, took his Islamic faith very seriously, and thought deeply about the nature of God and our relationship to him.

Khayyám, born in Persia in 1048, was most famed in his own time as a mathematician, astronomer, and scientist. He wrote some of the most important medieval works in geometry and algebra, and helped reform the calendar, an even more accurate one than the Gregorian calendar we use today. But he was also an accomplished philosopher, and scholars are working on resolving the apparent contradictions between this work and his poetry.

One thing I’ve gotten from my research (which, thus far, is only beginning and therefore not nearly enough): for all his prodigious learning and accomplishments, Khayyám honestly acknowledges the limits of human understanding, and seems to tell us that while the great work of discerning the truths of the universe is a great, noble, even necessary endeavor, we do well to keep in mind that we can never know everything, whether through science or religion. So, Khayyám seems tells us, we do well to work, to wonder, to seek, to do right, but also to live for today:

At first they brought me perplexed in this way
Amazement still enhances day by day
We all alike are tasked to go but Oh!
Why are we brought and sent? This none can say’. (Rubā‘iyyāt, Tirtha 1941, 18, from IEP)

‘As Spring and Fall make their appointed turn,
The leaves of life one aft another turn;
Drink wine and brood not—as the Sage has said:
“Life’s cares are poison, wine the cure in turn.” (Sa‘idī 1994, 58, from IEP)

Learn more about this great poet and thinker at:

Umar Khayyam –  by Mehdi Aminrazavi and Glen Van Brummelen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Omar Khayaam, 1048–1131 – The Poetry Foundation

Omar Khayyam – Encyclopædia Britannica.

Avicenna (Ibn Sina) – by Sajjad H. Rizvi for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Umar al-Khayyam (Omar Khayyam) – for Muslim Heritage

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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Happy Birthday, Angelina Weld Grimké!

angelina-weld-grimke-image-public-domain

Angelina Weld Grimké

El Beso

Twilight—and you
Quiet—the stars;
Snare of the shine of your teeth,
Your provocative laughter,
The gloom of your hair;
Lure of you, eye and lip;
Yearning, yearning,
Languor, surrender;
Your mouth,
And madness, madness,
Tremulous, breathless, flaming,
The space of a sigh;
Then awakening—remembrance,
Pain, regret—your sobbing;
And again, quiet—the stars,
Twilight—and you.   (via Poets.org)

Let us celebrate the memory of the wonderful and far-too-unknown author of this gorgeous poem and so many other wonderful works of art and literature on her birthday!

Alix North of Island of Lesbos writes of Grimké:

Angelina Weld Grimké was born [on February 27th, 1880] in Boston, the only child of Archibald Grimké and Sarah Stanley. Angelina had a mixed racial background; her father was the son of a white man and a black slave, and her mother was from a prominent white family. Her parents named her after her great aunt Angelina Grimké Weld, a famous white abolitionist and women’s rights advocate.

Angelina received a physical education degree at the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1902. She worked as a gym teacher until 1907, when she became an English teacher, and she continued to teach until her retirement in 1926. During her teaching career, she wrote poetry, fiction, reviews, and biographical sketches. She became best known for her play entitled “Rachel.” The story centers around an African-American woman (Rachel) who rejects marriage and motherhood. Rachel believes that by refusing to reproduce, she declines to provide the white community with black children who can be tormented with racist atrocities. “Rachel” was the only piece of Angelina’s work to be published as a book; only some of her stories and poems were published, primarily in journals, newspapers, and anthologies.

Only her poetry reveals Angelina’s romantic love toward women. The majority of her poems are love poems to women or poems about grief and loss. Some (particularly those published during her lifetime) deal with racial concerns, but the bulk of her poems are about other women, and were unlikely to be published for this reason. Only about a third of her poetry has been published to date…  (The orginal site at http://www.sappho.com/poetry/a_grimke.html is no longer active, please see below to learn more)

angelina-weld-grimke…and learn more about the luminous Angelina Weld Grimké at:

Angelina Weld Grimké – in Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, edited by Yolanda Williams Page

Angelina Weld Grimké – by Judith Zvonkin for The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C.

Angelina Weld Grimké – from Encyclopædia Britannica

Grimke, Angelina Weld (1880-1958) – by Claudia E. Sutherland for Blackpast.org

Grimkè’s Life and Career: The Introduction to The Selected Works of Angelina Weld Grimké – by Carolivia Herron for Modern American Poetry at the Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Further reading: Selected Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: A Resource Guide – Angelina Weld Grimké 

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!

Happy Birthday, Audre Lorde!

Audre Lorde, 1980

Audre Lorde, 1980

Poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde was born on February 18, 1934. In remembrance of this powerful and eloquent woman on her birthday, I’ll share the bio I found at the Poetry Foundation:

‘A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing the injustices of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Her poetry, and “indeed all of her writing,” according to contributor Joan Martin in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, “rings with passion, sincerity, perception, and depth of feeling.” Concerned with modern society’s tendency to categorize groups of people, Lorde fought the marginalization of such categories as “lesbian” and “black woman,” thereby empowering her readers to react to the prejudice in their own lives. While the widespread critical acclaim bestowed upon Lorde for dealing with lesbian topics made her a target of those opposed to her radical agenda, she continued, undaunted, to express her individuality, refusing to be silenced. As she told interviewer Charles H. Rowell in Callaloo: “My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds… [White, arch-conservative senator] Jesse Helms’s objection to my work is not about obscenity…or even about sex. It is about revolution and change.” Fighting a battle with cancer that she documented in her highly acclaimed Cancer Journals (1980), Lorde died of the illness in 1992…. Read more about Audre Lorde and her poetry here

and the wonderful articles about Lorde by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

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!

How ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ Inspired Victorian Hedonists, by Roman Krznaric

The Angel of the Drink of Darkness, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, by Edmund Dulac

How did a 400-line poem based on the writings of a Persian sage and advocating seize-the-day hedonism achieve widespread popularity in Victorian England? The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was written by the eccentric English scholar Edward FitzGerald, drawing on his loose translation of quatrains by the 12th-century poet and mathematician Omar Khayyám. Obscure beginnings perhaps, but the poem’s remarkable publishing history is the stuff of legend. Its initial publication in 1859 – the same year as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and J S Mill’s On Liberty – went completely unnoticed: it didn’t sell a single copy in its first two years. That all changed when a remaindered copy of FitzGerald’s 20-page booklet was picked up for a penny by the Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes, who passed it on to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who subsequently fell in love with it and sang its praises to his Pre-Raphaelite circle.

When, in 1863, it fell into the hands of John Ruskin, he declared: ‘I never did – till this day – read anything so glorious.’ From that moment, there began a cult of Khayyám that lasted at least until the First World War, by which time there were 447 editions of FitzGerald’s translation in circulation. Omar dining clubs sprang up, and you could even buy Omar tooth powder and illustrated playing cards. During the war, dead soldiers were found in the trenches with battered copies tucked away in their pockets.

What then was the extraordinary attraction of the Rubáiyát? The answer sings out from some of its most famous verses:

XXIV
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and – sans End!

XXXV
Then to the lip of this poor earthen Urn
I lean’d, the Secret of my Life to learn:
And Lip to Lip it murmur’d – ‘While you live
Drink! – for, once dead, you never shall return.’

LXIII
Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain – This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

The Rubáiyát was an unapologetic expression of hedonism, bringing to mind sensuous embraces in jasmine-filled gardens on balmy Arabian nights, accompanied by cups of cool, intoxicating wine. It was a passionate outcry against the unofficial Victorian ideologies of moderation, primness and self-control.

Yet the poem’s message was even more radical than this, for the Rubáiyát was a rejection not just of Christian morality, but of religion itself. There is no afterlife, Khayyám implied, and since human existence is transient – and death will come much faster than we imagine – it’s best to savour life’s exquisite moments while we can. This didn’t mean throwing oneself into wild hedonistic excess, but rather cultivating a sense of presence, and appreciating and enjoying the here and now in the limited time we have on Earth.

This heady union of bodily pleasures, religious doubt and impending mortality captured the imagination of its Victorian audience, who had been raised singing pious hymns at church on a Sunday morning. No wonder the writer G K Chesterton admonishingly declared that the Rubáiyát was the bible of the ‘carpe diem religion’.

The influence of the poem on Victorian culture was especially visible in the works of Oscar Wilde, who described it as a ‘masterpiece of art’ and one of his greatest literary loves. He took up its themes in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). The character of Lord Henry Wotton is a champion of hedonism who explicitly refers to the sensual allures of ‘wise Omar’, and tempts the beautiful young man Dorian to sell his soul for the decadent pleasures of eternal youth. ‘Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses,’ says Lord Henry. ‘A new Hedonism – that is what our century wants.’

Wilde’s novel was a thinly veiled celebration of homosexuality – a crime for which he was gaoled in 1895 (passages of the book were read out at his trial as part of the incriminating evidence). He saw in the Rubáiyát an argument for individual freedom and sexual liberation from the constraints of Victorian social convention, not least because FitzGerald too was well-known for his homosexuality. For Wilde, as for FitzGerald, carpe diem hedonism was far more than the pursuit of sensory pleasures: it was a subversive political act with the power to reshape the cultural landscape.

Hedonism has a bad reputation today, being associated with ‘YOLO’ binge-drinking, drug overdoses, and a bucket-list approach to life that values fleeting novelty and thrill-seeking above all else. Yet the history of the Rubáiyát is a reminder that we might try to rediscover the hidden virtues of hedonism.

On the one hand, it could serve as an antidote to a growing puritanical streak in modern happiness thinking, which threatens to turn us into self-controlled moderation addicts who rarely express a passionate lust for life. Pick up a book from the self-help shelves and it is unlikely to advise dealing with your problems by smoking a joint under the stars or downing a few tequila slammers in an all-night club. Yet such hedonistic pursuits – enjoyed sensibly – have been central to human culture and wellbeing for centuries: when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas, they discovered the Aztecs tripping on magic mushrooms.

On the other hand, the kind of hedonism popularised by the Rubáiyát can help to put us back in touch with the virtues of direct experience in our age of mediation, where so much of daily life is filtered through the two-dimensional electronic flickers on a smartphone or tablet. We are becoming observers of life rather than participants, immersed in a society of the digital spectacle. We could learn a thing or two from the Victorians: let us keep a copy of the Rubáiyát in our pockets, alongside the iPhone, and remember the words of wise Khayyám: ‘While you live Drink! – for, once dead, you never shall return.’Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Roman Krznaric is a social philosopher. He is the founder of the world’s first Empathy Museum and of the digital Empathy Library. He is also a founding faculty member of The School of Life and on the faculty of Year Here. His latest book is Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day (2017). Bio credit: Aeon

~ 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!