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Before 1776

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It’s Not Even Past.

“The early American economy was built on slave labor. The Capitol and the White House were built by slaves. President James K. Polk traded slaves from the Oval Office…[B]lack history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it…Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge — that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.”

In a long, deeply-researched, and very worthwhile essay, Ta-Nahesi Coates surveys the sweep of American history to make the case for reparations — “by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences”. “Liberals today mostly view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality. They ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success — and the elevation of that punishment, in the mid-20th century, to federal policy.”

Coates’ historical case here — ranging from 1619 to the present day and resting on works by Edmund Morgan, Eric Foner, Ira Katznelson, and others (he even gets in the oft-forgotten Tulsa riots) — is air-tight and undeniable. At the very least, we could all stop pretending that four centuries of shameful discrimination and brutality didn’t happen, and acknowledge that, as Coates points out, it remains manifest in everything from our housing policies to the wealth gap to our absurd incarceration rates.

Along those lines, granted this may be changing soon, but it remains ridiculous that we have a very powerful Holocaust Museum on the Mall, but no equivalent museum or memorial about our own national original sin, slavery. The Holocaust Museum is very appropriate for DC: It is an unforgettable reminder of the systematized depravities that even supposedly civilized societies can commit. But we need to start considering the beam in our eye more seriously as well.

This piece also dovetails nicely with one of my favorite Cornel West quotes: “To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America — this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.”

Where It Began, I Can’t Begin to Knowin’.

“‘This is the oldest fortified settlement in the present United States,’ said historian and Florida State University alumnus Fletcher Crowe. ‘This fort is older than St. Augustine, considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in America. It’s older than the Lost Colony of Virginia by 21 years; older than the 1607 fort of Jamestown by 45 years; and predates the landing of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1620 by 56 years.'”

Two Florida professors announce they have found the site of Fort Caroline, a French outpost ravaged by the Spanish in 1565, near Darien, Georgia — not near Jacksonville where it was thought to be. ‘The frustrating and often acrimonious quest to find the fort has become a sort of American quest for the Holy Grail by archaeologists, historians and other scholars,’ he noted. ‘The inability to find the fort has made some wonder if it ever existed.'”

But other researchers are saying hold up. “‘It’s not conceivable that the soldiers could have made it to the Altamaha River from St. Augustine in two days…If they are correct, then the Spanish would have moved the St. Augustine settlement 70 miles south, to its present location. There is simply no evidence for this,’ said Meide. ‘This new theory doesn’t stand up to the archaeological and historical information that has been amassed by scholars over the past fifty years.'”

Thus far, archaeologists have yet to scope the newly proposed site. So, with all due respect to fellow historians, I’d probably wait to see what they find first.

Chasing Darkness.

“How dark it would have been—imagine leaning out your door and, on the darkest nights, not being able to see more than a few feet in any direction. Historian Peter Baldwin describes as ‘downright perilous’ the streets in early American cities, with few paved and then those only with cobblestones…What lights did exist were intended only as beacons or guides rather than to illuminate the night. The New York street lanterns burning whale oil were, in 1761, merely ‘yellow specks engulfed by darkness,’ and, even more than 100 years later, its gas lamps were still ‘faint as a row of invalid glow-worms.'”

In Slate, Paul Bogart describes (and laments) the end of night all across the world. “With at least 30 percent of all vertebrates and more than 60 percent of all invertebrates worldwide nocturnal, and with many of the rest crepuscular, [the] implications are enormous.”

What do you mean we, white man?

“We should put that sign up when you sunuvabitches came!” An angry Native American man unleashes a truth bomb on Arizona anti-immigration protesters. Something to keep in mind the next time angry right-wingers start venting about “illegals.”

Escape from New York.

“On an island under military occupation at the edge of an empire, the armed forces of a global superpower detain hundreds and sometimes even thousands of allegedly unlawful combatants. The powerful nation consigns the detainees to a legal limbo, subjecting them to treatment that critics around the world decry as inhumane, unenlightened, and ultimately self-defeating. That may sound like a history of Guantanamo. Yet the year was 1776, the superpower was Great Britain, and the setting was New York City. The ‘unlawful’ combatants were American revolutionaries.”

in a mixed review of Edwin Burrows’ Forgotten Patriots, friend and Columbia prof John Witt notes “eerie” parallels between Guantanamo Bay and revolutionary-era Manhattan, and offers choice advice for President-elect Obama. “To succeed, he will have to reunite the twin American traditions of interest and idealism. They are traditions his predecessor tore apart, but they are the true legacy of the Revolution.

Another Green World.

For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Well, that’s that — the 2005 round-up is out-of-date. If you’ve ever seen a Terence Malick flick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line), you can guess the contours of The New World — a Fall of Eden motif, a languid, dreamlike pace, resonant images of natural splendor, conflicted characters wrapped up in voiceover self-reflection, all punctuated with the occasional underwater swimming cam and chaotic sortie of Man against Man. (At my sparsely attended afternoon show, the guy to my left fell asleep, and the woman to my right walked out.) That being said, I thought this movie was the perfect match of director and material, and one of the most transporting and beautiful films I’ve seen in years. Sure, it has some serious historical issues, and sometimes dabbles dangerously with the noble savage schtick, one of Malick’s favorite tropes. But as a work of cinema, I think it may just be a masterpiece.

The year is 1607, and — with Capt. Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) at the helm and Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell) in the brig — three English ships put to in a sun-dappled marshland, recently named after their late Virgin Queen. Short of food and enthusiasm after their exhausting Atlantic crossing, these new arrivals to the New World convey a tense hello to the “naturals,” construct a fort, plant a few token crops, and then begin frantically panning for gold and silver. When it soon becomes clear that the survival of the fledgling settlement will require both the forbearance and the trade of the nearby Powhatans, Smith is sent to visit the tribe in hopes of striking a deal. There, he is saved from a grisly death in the longhouse by the love, compassion, and curiosity of young Pocahontas (a radiant Q’Orianka Kilcher), daughter of the chief. (Lucky for Smith, and as the story goes, he gives her fever.)

Here is where some historical purists might start checking out (if they haven’t already), as the much-written-about romance between John Smith and Pocahontas, however enthroned in our overly happy tales of early Native American contact, probably didn’t happen. (The tale of his being saved may well be true, but it was probably an elaborate but traditional tribal ritual, one in which Chief Powhatan displayed his magnanimity to a potential rival by having a family member spare his life.) Similarly, the later relationship between Pocahontas and John Rolfe, America’s first (white) tobacco entrepreneur (Christian Bale, so that‘s how Batman made his money) had less to do with the chastened love story shown here than with an attempt to keep the peace — In Rolfe’s own words, he married “for the good of this plantation, for the honour of our countrie, for the glory of God, for my owne salvation, and for the converting to the true knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, an unbeleeving creature, namely Pokahuntas,” in that order.

Some other details rankle too. I’m not a colonial historian, but I highly doubt the brief reign of Capt. Wingfield (David Thewlis) ended exactly as it’s shown here. (Speaking of Thewlis and a la Thin Red Line, there are a number of recognizable actors skulking about Jamestown, including Ben Chaplin and Noah Taylor, and one film-fan cameo presiding over the Court of King James.)

But, really. To get too hung up on the history here is — quite literally — missing the forest for the trees. Like other Malick films, The New World is about impressions and evocations more than plot mechanics, and in that sense it’s a revelation. Through both natural sights and wondrous sound editing, the film does a stunning job of conveying the sublime strangeness of the other, and the magic and terror of an unfamiliar environment. In fact, the movie does it twice — Wes Studi has some powerfully haunting scenes in the third act, when, as an envoy of Powhatan, he is dumbfounded by the starkly manicured gardens of Europe. After the overgrown wilderness of Virginia, he — and we — might as well be on Mars. (Along those lines, I can’t remember the last time a film altered my perspective so much on the way out. After two and a half hours in this World, the Upper West Side seemed a bizarrely cluttered and unnatural realm for the rest of the evening.)

Terence Malick’s The New World is a masterfully crafted tale of discovery and transformation, passion and misunderstanding, intimacy and heartbreak, love and loss, and worlds Old and New. In short, it’s the best film of 2005 (and well-worth seeing on a big screen.)

“The Myth of the Native Babe.”

“Mythologies aren’t created for the purpose of telling history, they’re created for the purpose of trying to devise some form of identity for people.” On the eve of Terence Malick’s highly-awaited The New World (out Christmas Day), the NYT‘s Steve Chagollan briefly assesses portrayals of Pocahontas in film. (Via Dangerous Meta.)

Chesapeake Fury.

Hey…quiet around here again, I know. As of this week, I’ve moved my summer base of operations from New Amsterdam to my folks’ place in Chesapeake, VA. (I’m sure Jack Greene would approve.) And, otherwise, I’m pretty well swamped with some freelance work. So, posting may well be light this week, or it might not…perhaps I can squeeze in some blogging between trips to Chick-Fil-A.

America Begins.

So that’s how Bruce Wayne made his money…Christian Bale shows up as John Rolfe in the new trailer for Terence Malick’s The New World, also starring Colin Farrell (as John Smith), newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher (as Pocahontas), Christopher Plummer, Wes Studi, Noah Taylor, and David Thewlis.

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