The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘history’

Black History

November 24, 2015 | by

Celebrating Umoja Karamu, a “ritual for the black family,” on Thanksgiving.

From the cover of Disgruntled, Asali Solomon’s debut novel.

Back in the early 1980s, no one at the mostly white elite prep school I attended had heard of Kwanzaa, which I’d grown up celebrating instead of Christmas. This was a yearly hassle of explaining: yes, presents; no, Santa Claus. But absolutely no one had heard of Umoja Karamu, “a ritual for the black family” that we observed at Thanksgiving. This one I never volunteered to explain. Black families who celebrated Umoja Karamu (Kiswahili for “unity feast”)—and we were the only one I knew of—were to trade in the ritual of senselessly stuffing ourselves for one in which we used food and words to reflect on the grim, glorious trajectory of black people in America, to recall the crimes of the “greedy one-eyed giant” white man, and to keep the “Black Nation” energized and focused, struggling toward liberation from racism.

During Umoja Karamu, which lived in a 1971 booklet (a mere two years older than I was) published by a fellow Philadelphian named Edward Sims, we sat at our special holiday table and took turns reading solemnly aloud from a pithy narrative of African American history that moved from the ancient kingdom of Mali to the Watts riots. Between readings, we ate a symbolic sequence of aggressively non-Thanksgiving foods, including black-eyed peas, rice, corn bread, and leafy greens, all served unseasoned, perhaps to make us more thoughtful. Blessedly, my mother always insisted on a normal holiday meal after Umoja Karamu. But Edward Sims was certainly about his business. Each Thanksgiving, as I waited to get to the stuffing and gravy, I did indeed taste the suffering we read about. I experienced the “bland and tasteless condition under which Black Folk lived during the slavery period” in the form of unsalted white rice and chalky black-eyed peas. But happily, enduring Umoja Karamu, unlike the suffering of the Black Nation, was a private shame, one about which my school friends knew nothing. That is, until I received a fifth-grade assignment to write an essay about family Thanksgiving traditions and to read it aloudRead More »

Old Maps

November 17, 2015 | by

Islandia, a map by Abraham Ortelius, ca. 1590.

Many years ago, on a family vacation in another country, we took an English-language tour of a medieval university. The group saw the antique telescopes and charts used by famous astronomers, and the stone-floored laboratories where philosophers had tried to turn lead into gold. And there was a room filled with maps—sixteenth-century maps, we were told. These were objects of beauty, filled with colors and sea monsters, fanciful by modern standards. Read More »

Ode to La Pagode

November 11, 2015 | by

La Pagode.

I should have known that La Pagode, maybe the most distinctive cinema in all of Paris, was on its last legs when I was turned away at the ticket counter last month. The heat wasn’t working in the grand Japanese room, and although there were a few blankets available for patrons, the woman at the ticket counter really didn’t recommend I stay. I caught a glimpse of the cashmere throws in Chanel red, piled behind the counter—this was, after all, the Seventh arrondissement of Paris, the same Faubourg Saint-Germain where Balzac’s Eugène Rastignac went sheepishly to his first soiree.

La Pagode looks like a Japanese temple, or at least a kitschy world’s-fair version of a Japanese temple, replete with gold lacquer, intricately carved birds and flowers, and elaborate ceiling murals. It was built in 1896, a few blocks from the Bon Marché department store as a trinket for the owner’s wife, but apparently it wasn’t novel enough: soon after its construction she left him for his partner. Abandonment, you might conclude, is its destiny. Read More »

Can These Dry Bones Live?

November 2, 2015 | by

In the second of three excerpts from The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas Laqueur looks at the necrotopology of the churchyard.

Henry Alexander Bowler, The Doubt: ‘Can these Dry Bones Live?’, 1855.

The churchyard was, with few exceptions, a lumpy, untidy place. Gravediggers have always instinctively known this; they dug in ground that had been turned over for centuries. From very near the beginning they intercut, hacked through, turned over, tossed out earlier tenants to make room for new ones, and every few hundred years or so apparently leveled the ground and started again. In centuries-long cycles, the fact that there were dead bodies in the ground was made evident on its surface. The dead are really there. The lumps we can still see today in a few churchyards escaped one last round of recycling when the bodies stopped coming or when a local landscaper decided to leave them be. Read More »

Ham on Rye

October 7, 2015 | by

John Barrymore in 1920.

Some years ago, a friend who works in real estate let me see the Greenwich Village apartment that had belonged to John Barrymore; I had read about it and was thrilled to see the interior. Today its rent is beyond the reach of most mortals, but even when Barrymore moved there, in 1917, the building had a distinct bohemian chic—it had been remodeled by the architect Josephine Wright Chapman. Still, the nineteenth-century row house was modest by matinee-idol standards. Barrymore took the place while he was appearing on Broadway in Hamlet. He was not yet considered tragic or ridiculous or a parody of himself, though he was on the way.

To the modern eye, the light-filled studio with its window seat, skylight, and fireplace are magical enough, even with a tiny bedroom and no real kitchen—indeed, this sort of adds to the charm. Up a narrow ladder, on the roof, was a hut that Barrymore had built: a single weatherproofed room with a vaulted ceiling. The playwright Paul Rudnick rented the studio in the 1980s, and as he wrote in the New Yorker, he was “smitten.” Read More »

Split Screens: An Interview with Richard McGuire

June 12, 2015 | by


Photo © Maelle Doliveux

Last November, on his birthday, I accompanied Richard McGuire to the emergency room. He was experiencing some excruciating back pain. Richard is an unusually polite and considerate man, but as he waited and waited for some relief, I began to worry about him. I asked a passing nurse about pain medication. She poked her head into our room and explained there was a “code” on the floor—the doctors had been dealing with that.

We went quiet. Richard explained that “code blue” usually meant a death.

Half an hour later, Richard was given a Valium and two extra-strength Motrin. He talked about being in the hospital with his father the night his mother died, the machines all going crazy, the medics rushing in and telling them to leave. When his father died, he said, it was different, more peaceful.

Richard was X-rayed, diagnosed with a severe muscle spasm, and discharged. We headed to a restaurant a block away where far-flung friends had gathered for his birthday dinner. It struck me, as we ordered burgers and martinis, that the past few hours could be a strange and miniature overture to his book, Here, which he had just finished. A birth date, a death date, loving and painful memories, banalities, transient spaces, and always an eye on the time. Here launched a month later and has since become a best seller.

I feel that Here is a very new kind of ghost story. Not a scary one, but a haunting one. What portion of the book was inspired by the death of your sister and parents, and what was the original strip inspired by, or an exercise in?

I think their passing set the tone for the book. You see things differently after going through that experience—the idea of impermanence is made more real, and everything seems fragile. The family home had to be sold. Just emptying it took a while. My parents lived there for fifty years, and the house was packed. My mom hated throwing anything away. All the clothes, the photos, the letters and things that had meaning to them. The only thing I took were boxes of photos and some films my dad shot. I think it helped with the grieving process, looking at all that stuff. Read More »