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Venom in the House

 

 

We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!


--Arthur Miller, "The Crucible," first performed in 1953

 

To have enslaved America with this hocuspocus! To have captured the mind of the world's greatest nation without uttering a single word of truth! Oh, the pleasure we must be affording the most malevolent man on earth!
           

--Philip Roth, "The Plot Against America," 2004

 

 

I have been struggling all morning to find a pithy quote to begin this blog post, one that describes the shredding of hope, expectation, good will, common sense, intelligence, and civility in Washington DC. I remembered a discussion of hot and cold mediums when I was in graduate school after I slogged my way through Marshall McLuhan's gnomic prose, but I have rejected several McLuhan quotes and present you, instead, dear reader, with Arthur Miller and Philip Roth. (More of McLuhan later.) "The Crucible" was written at the height of the McCarthy siege in Congress, not unlike the venomous hearing we witnessed yesterday. "The Plot Against America" was written in saner times, yet it is disturbingly prescient. It imagines Charles Lindbergh winning the presidency in 1944; Lindbergh was a neo-Nazi. Both "The Crucible" and "The Plot Against America" are literary masterpieces and I urge you to read them.
                                   

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Hot and cold. Text is cold, email a bit warmer, the human voice warmer still. Where was Mueller's voice yesterday? Where was his conscience? So obedient to "fairness," and the words of his own report, such as he remembered them, or scrambled to find them, that he could not stray into warmth, or intimacy, or opinion, or passionate concern. Only once did he manage to eke out a more forceful sentence about the dangers of continuing Russian interference in our upcoming election. Whether or not the Democrats in the House understood what might happen if they summoned Robert Mueller to a hearing is moot now. The deed is done.


"If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough," Robert Capa, the famous war photographer once said. The same is true for all story-telling, whether oral or written. I can can still feel the heat from our larger-than-life flat screen as Robert Mueller raised his hand to take the oath. Television, especially our huge, high definition close-up screens and crisp audio, is a hot medium. People may tell lies unabated and without remorse, but the digital image and audio do not lie. They flare into our consciousness, into our synapses and our bones, whether we will it or not.


If I had listened to Mueller on radio, his stammering and confusion would have been obvious. The image of his bewildered and exhausted face amplified his weak and faltering—nearly autistic—delivery. The Republican prosecutors—Mueller on trial—were as venomous as Joseph McCarthy and his cohorts. Mueller was pummeled and diminished, his report in tatters, or already forgotten.


"How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn't see it with my own eyes, I'd think I was having a hallucination," Roth writes in The Plot Against America.


I end this post today with Roth's question which has, as yet, no answer and no immediate remedy. I think that those of us who have been resisting the regime in Washington since it was installed more than two years ago, and who watched the Republican display of opportunism, righteousness and cruelty yesterday, will never forget it.

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Sanctuary

Photo courtesy Rough Draft Bar & Books, 82 John Street, Kingston, NY

 

I drove up to Kingston, NY to deliver "Say Nothing," to Rough Draft Bar & Books on John Street. I'll be one of the local authors signing books there on September 9th. It's a beautiful store; paper is making a comeback.


It was a hot day and I parked as close as I could. I poured quarters into the meter and set out. John Street is in the old "stockade" part of Kingston, the first capital of New York State. The landmarked stone houses were built as a fortress against the Munsee Esopus tribe who fought like crazy to push back the European colonial advance. No luck; the houses still stand, but the Native Munsees are gone. The tribe migrated—what was left of them—north and west, merging with other Algonquin-speaking tribes for safety and survival.


I can't get their fate—their story—out of my mind. I don't know why I think about it so much, maybe because I only recently arrived in upstate New York, and can't abide omissions in the history, maybe because my own family was displaced and killed.


I'm walking through the Munsee history slowly, absorbing whatever there is to read, preparing to write something, I'm not sure what. Once injustice takes hold of me, I can't let it go until I've written about it. It hasn't always been easy.


"Go back where you came from." I've heard that before, from an English Lord in the House of Lords where I'd been called to testify in front of a committee. The Lord didn't like an article I'd written for The Times Educational Supplement exposing the treatment of West Indian immigrant children in the London schools. He addressed me as "Mrs. Bergman," and continued, as follows: "We thank Mrs. Bergman for her article and ask that she return to America from whence she came." Fair enough. I wasn't a citizen, I was an "alien," working and living in London. But I was also a journalist exercising my freedom to write in a parliamentary democracy albeit without a Bill of Rights. Still, unless I was in contravention of the Official Secrets Act, I was free to write what I pleased, and what my editors commissioned me to investigate.


When we exercise our freedom to write, we cannot control our readers' response. I remember that when I received a death threat because of something I'd written, I was in shock. I had been naive and never anticipated rage, hatred, shunning, or threat of violence because of something I'd written. I have learned to accept it, but it's not pleasant, to say the least.


Insularity, parochial mentality, bigotry, racism, hate speech, incitement to violence. The escalation is obvious and—historically—well tested.


And now four elected United States representatives, women of color, have been deliberately, aggressively—verbally—attacked. Trump's rallies feel like lynch mobs, the border patrols like fugitive slave catchers. How will historians tell this story years from now? Honestly and thoroughly, I hope.


I ended my sojourn in Kingston with a pleasant, healthy Bento Box lunch at Yum Yum on Fair Street. It was quiet, well air-conditioned. A man at the counter greeted me warmly. It felt like a sanctuary.

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Over the Mountains and Into the Sea

A Pieta by Maria Izquierdo, a lesser known Mexican painter (1902-1955) but no less powerful than Diego, Tamayo, and Frida.

 

Their clothes were shredded and reeked from natural and chemical odors. They had drifted into an oil spill on a raft of logs. First it was warm, then bitterly cold. They would have preferred a trek across the desert if only for a few minutes. They encountered desperadoes. They made it to a chateau and were permitted to use the telephone. They could hardly speak. Thus has the story come down to us in fragments: their courage, for example.

 

This is not a film script; it is an account of one escape among many escapes. My own paternal grandparents.

 

They chose the wrong escape route. They did not make it.

 

I read the stories about America's atrocities on the southern border, and the ICE raids—they will also round up "collaterals"—and  it is as though the fascist reign of terror crushed by the Allies in WW II has become undead and infected our government, a contagion spreading around the world. Like a germ that has remained dormant for a few decades—supra-nationalism, white supremacy—it  is with us again, persistent and strengthened. I know that this rendering is apocraphyl—there are laws now we did not have before—yet  it feels true to me today as the American government, itself, is lawless, amoral, cruel. Are there enough words to describe what is happening? Can we find the right words to describe what is happening?

 

We are witnessing a reign of terror perpetrated by our government. Somehow, the voting booth does not seem an adequate response.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Slaves

A memorial @ The African Burial Ground on Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY. 
Photo: © copyright by Carol Bergman 2019

 

 

"Genealogical trees do not flourish among slaves."

 

Frederick  Douglass, 1855

 

 

"Such is the story that comes down to me."

 

Madison Hemings, son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, Pike County Ohio, 1873

 

 


I've been reading American Colonial History, interviewing people, and researching in historic archives non-stop since my arrival in New Paltz just over a year ago in preparation, I thought, for a long narrative nonfiction project about the legacy of slavery in one small Mid-Hudson Valley town. How is it coping with new revelations and interpretations? I arrived in the midst of a dormitory renaming controversy on the SUNY campus--an echo of the discourse we're having about monuments across the country--and published a guest column in the Poughkeepsie Journal in September, 2018. I was excited by the prospect of being a peripheral narrator in this story: both a participant/citizen and a reporter/observer. But I had heard that a prominent historian at the Historic Huguenot Street Archives had been released from her duties after conflict with the Board of Directors some years ago. This did not bode well. I was trying to provide a fresh perspective, ask interesting questions, but it didn't take long for me to become persona non grata, and to receive emails reminding me—a bona fide journalist—that I could not have press tickets to certain events. It was enough to question whether my project was viable.

 

For a while, I worked around resistance, and even drafted an article, but I stopped after I attended a meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission to advocate for the landmarking of the Jacob Wynkoop houses—more below. I was no longer an observer/reporter; I had become an activist.


When a profile of me appeared in the local paper about my new murder mystery, "Say Nothing," a two-page spread with a photo, and only those near and dear turned up at the reading at a local independent bookstore, despite a lot of publicity, I knew that the gate had closed, that I was done. What had happened? It would take an investigative reporter with the clout and resources of a major newspaper to get the full story, but I have my hypothesis: I'm an outsider, a newcomer. Who am I, therefore, to remind the settled population here, many descended from the original settlers—to "lecture" them, as one vicious FB post said—that the legacy of slavery is visible, extant and troubling; Dutch, English, and French Huguenots all owned slaves.


One day in the late spring of 2019, surfacing from the dusty archive at Historic Huguenot Street, a tour bus parked in the visitor's lot. I stopped to watch what looked like a high school group and their teacher saunter toward Bevier House. For some reason they began to roam around on their own, without the assistance of a docent. The teacher was talking as I approached, but I didn't hear what he said; he was peering into the cellar window. I had done the same in recent weeks and found it haunting. I imagined the slaves sleeping on pallets on the dirt floor, spinning wool, or cooking, and struggling up and down the steep stairs leading to the outside entrance to the house--more steps--as they carried food, or laundry to their "master," Abraham Bevier, and his family. The 1790 census confirms that Abraham Bevier owned seven slaves. Did they all live in the cellar? And even if there was an interior staircase as an empathetic and charming Huguenot descendant recently explained to me--by way of softening the slaves'travail, perhaps--would that have made any difference?


I went up to the teacher and asked if he knew what he was looking at. "A cellar," he said. "A slave dwelling," I corrected him, wishing there had been a plaque to explain the dwelling and its relationship to the house, but the teacher seemed less than interested and quickly moved away to gather his students around the well, an educational opportunity lost. I was, at least, pleased that I had mentioned something.


Juneteenth, 2019, a holiday commemorating Emancipation after the Civil War. I went on a tour--to which I did get a press pass because it pertained to my project, presumably--of the Jacob Wynkoop houses in New Paltz with Kara Augustine, Director of Public Programming at Historic Huguenot Street. The story of Jacob Wynkoop, a prominent African American citizen of New Paltz, a Union soldier, born free to a slave mother in 1829, one year after New York State emancipated its slaves, has been known since the 1980's. He died in 1912 and is buried in the New Paltz Rural Cemetery in Plot A-74/82. And though he was a member of the New Paltz (interracial) Grand Army of the Republic's fraternal organization, there are no streets named after him, nor did SUNY New Paltz, to my knowledge, consider naming one of their dorms after him. He was a builder, contractor, and carpenter. Several of his compact, well-made houses—with their signature attic windows—are still standing here; one was an investment property. Today we might call him an architect and real estate developer, two occupations revered in this burgeoning valley.


Where are his descendants? Possibly in Poughkeepsie, New York City and points beyond, I have learned. Why did they leave New Paltz? Was the town unwelcoming, or worse? Why haven't his houses been landmarked, or marked with a simple plaque? Why is this ostensibly progressive town so ethnically homogeneous? Apart from the SUNY New Paltz Campus, with its diversity outreach initiatives and faculty from all over the world, the 14,000 plus citizens are mostly white, with a smattering of Latinos.


In this era of transformation, as we reckon with our fraught past and complex political present, the failure of Reconstruction in the South and integration in the North, the redress of African American slave descendants (HR-40) is gaining traction again in Congress. The removal of monuments is one thing, the acknowledgement of contributions by the survivors of enslavement another. Both are important.


https://www.newpaltz.edu/media/diversity/Hasbrouck%20Renaming%20Report-Web.pdf\


http://images.burrellesluce.com/image/6322C/6322C_5605


The author wishes to thank: Carol Johnson, David & Susanna Lent, Jennifer Dubois Bruntil, Kara Augustine, Josephine Bloodgood, Albert Williams-Myers, Susan Stessin-Cohn, Eric Roth, Alan Kraus, and Michael Groth for their scholarship and insights.

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