Juneteenth

I am home today, enjoying a paid holiday away from the workplace, but I’m not entirely sure why. I know that Juneteenth is a day long observed by African-Americans in the United States. I know that it marks, for them, the end of slavery and the beginning of freedom. I fully approve of the celebration of Juneteenth in the United States. I am not sure how being paid to stay home and catch up on my writing and other personal plans contributes to the meaning of this day.

Since colonial times, Africans were involuntarily transported into the western hemisphere to work for Europeans. Most of those Africans were sold into slavery by their fellow Africans, entrepreneurs making a profit off the vulnerability of their neighbors. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to exploit this involuntary labor. First on islands off the coast of Africa, then in the western hemisphere, Portuguese investors raised sugar cane, harvesting the sugar and selling it in Europe, where a growing taste for sugar made the spice a valuable commodity. Spanish explorers added African slaves to their conquered lands as the native population of the western hemisphere succumbed to European diseases such as smallpox and measles. The British and other European colonial governments perpetuated the slave trade.

The Industrial Revolution, beginning in Great Britain, made abolition of slavery possible for the first time in history. Even as the United States declared independence from Great Britain, the place of slaves in the new nation was debated. Some national leaders wanted to abolish slavery from the beginning of the country. They took seriously the words of Thomas Jefferson that “all men are created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Others resisted freeing the slaves. A compromise was reached, when the Constitution was written, permitting slavery to continue in parts of the country but allowing no new slaves to be brought into the country. As part of that compromise, slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person in the national census. Eventually, a war was fought among the states over the issue of slavery. After the war ended, slavery was abolished by the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution. All people living in the United States were declared to have the rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.

Some white people labored to help the former slaves. They established schools in the south, helped to organize black-owned businesses, accepted black members of the government at the local, state, and national level, and required the state governments in the south to accept these changes. Others raised money to send former slaves and their families back to Africa, creating a country called Liberia. After time, though, people rose to power in both southern states and northern states who were less interested in equal and fair treatment for black citizens. Some former slaves became tenant farmers, working the same land for the same owners for a share of the profit but barred from social advancement. Some former slaves or their children moved north where they found factory jobs but were forced to live in substandard housing in segregated neighborhoods of northern cities. During the course of the twentieth century, a Civil Rights movement developed to challenge laws that perpetuated social, political, and economic differences between black citizens and white citizens. Some efforts toward justice succeeded, while others failed. Some efforts toward justice made life better for black citizens of the United States, while others continued to trap them in a system that diminished their opportunity for success in the United States.

Recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday—and making it a paid holiday for all workers—seems to me an empty gesture of goodwill toward African Americans. By all means, we should celebrate African American culture. African Americans are welcome to preserve their traditions and to share them with their neighbors, and we should be glad to take part in their celebrations. In this way, Juneteenth can be added to ethnic holidays which include Chinese New Year, Saint Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Octoberfest, and any other celebration that focuses attention upon one of the many groups within the United States of America. Schools, libraries, churches, businesses, neighborhood associations, and other gatherings can and should make all these days opportunities to remember and enjoy their heritage of our particular group. They can and should make all these days opportunities to learn about the heritage of other groups of people who share our cities, states, and country.

Celebrating an ethnic heritage is a good thing. Striving for liberty and justice for all people is another good thing. They do not often mix. Doing the first might distract many people from doing the second. Doing the first in a thoughtless and careless way might even create barriers that keep us from doing the second. A better country will not be formed by adding a holiday or two to the calendar. A better country will be formed when we see and hear each other, learn from each other, care about one another, and work together for the good of all. J.

John Lennon (1940-1980)

John Lennon was born eighty years ago today—October 9, 1940.

Without John Lennon, there would have been no Beatles. Surely some other group or individual would have filled the gap that the Beatles occupied, but their artistry and creativity would have been different. As a result, the 1960s and history since that time would also have been different.

When Paul McCartney met John Lennon in 1956, John was leading a skiffle group called the Quarrymen. (Skiffle is a British folk music, not unlike some of the Appalachian and Ozark folk music still performed today in the United States.) Paul and John established a musical partnership, that was soon joined by George Harrison. Other members came and went, and various names were used by the group. The Beatles did not approach the peak of success, though, until Ringo Starr became the regular drummer of the group in 1962.

In their early years, the Beatles performed many rock-and-roll hits from the United States, from black performers as well as white performers. They paid as much attention to B-side songs as to the promoted hits. They also wrote their own songs and performed them. An early Beatles hit, “Please Please me,” reveals both the word-play for which John became famous and the innovate harmonies that helped the Beatles to stand out from the crowd of early Sixties musicians. While Paul is sometimes considered the more musical of the pair, comparing Paul’s “And I Love Her” to John’s “If I Fell” (both from the album and movie Hard Day’s Night) reveals that they had equal and complementary talents. When the Beatles stopped touring and became a studio band, John was able to direct his word-play into more complex songs such as “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and, “I Am the Walrus.” But his musical abilities were also evident in songs such as “All You Need is Love,” which sounds like a simple rock anthem but has a complicated rhythmic structure which, every so often, drops half a beat.

John had a troubled childhood. Both his parents were absent, and John was raised by an aunt; his mother, Julia, died while John was still a child. (Oddly, Paul’s mother Mary also died while Paul was young.) John was perpetually contemptuous of authority and found it hard to maintain stable relationships. He was the first of the Beatles to marry; also the first to divorce and remarry. He was as absent from his sons’ lives as his father had been absent from his. John admitted that his promotion of love and peace for the world did not match the life he was living. John also experimented with a number of mind-altering substances, drawing his fellow Beatles and many other people into the drug culture of the later Sixties. He was briefly interested in Transcendental Meditation, a version of the Hindu religion promoted by a yogi who became very famous and wealthy as a result of his teaching. As the members of the Beatles sought meaning for their lives in various forms and aspects, the group fractured. John’s solo career was noted especially for the anti-war anthem “Give Peace a Chance” and the ballad “Imagine,” both of which are frequently quoted in contemporary conversations about life, politics, religion, and idealism.

John retired from the musical scene for several years, then began a comeback with new music in 1980. In December of that year, he was shot and killed by a deranged fan. As the Beatle martyr, John’s image and reputation became even more strongly associated with the values of peace and love. The Beatles remain cultural icons today, not only as representatives of the Sixties but as creators of music that continues to entertain, having passed the test of time. In the decades since the Beatles, many performers have enjoyed successful careers, but no one has shaped and defined music and culture as much as the Beatles did in their time. J.

Globalization

“Globalization” is a word invented by historians to describe the increasingly interdependent relationship of cultures and nations all over the world. If a factory opens or closes in Japan, the impact is felt by American workers, and vice versa. More and more, our economies rise together and fall together. No nation can stand alone any more.

Globalization results from rapid transportation and instant communication. Centuries ago, when transportation was slow and messages were carried by hand, various cultures could remain distinct, unaffected by others. A few Italians visited China, and a few Chinese visited Italy, but most people never traveled far from their homes. Even two thousand years ago Chinese silk was available in Italy and Italian glass was available in China, but both were very expensive because of the number of merchants who had bought and sold these items and the number of governments who had taxed these items as they traveled.

Globalization is good because we can learn about other people and experience their culture without leaving our homes. Purchased recordings, television, and the internet expose us to music and drama and other forms of art from nearly every culture in the world. Japanese music is performed in Vienna, and the works of Mozart are performed in Tokyo. One old warehouse downtown has been transformed into an eating establishment with a dozen booths selling food. Customers choose from cheeseburgers, pizza, gyros, tacos, Japanese food, Thai food, Indian food, and soul food. Moreover, economic links reduce violent confrontations between nations. Until 2008 (when Russia attacked Georgia) there had never been a war between two nations that both contained McDonald’s restaurants.

One risk of globalization is homogenization of culture. When every city in the world has McDonald’s and Walmart, will local cultures survive? If you were blindfolded and transported to a shopping mall somewhere in the United States, could you guess what city you were in by looking in the various stores? Perhaps the caps and T-shirts in the sporting goods department might give you a hint, but even there you will spot Cubs hats and Yankees hats and Dodgers hats in every part of the country.

Globalization makes it harder to “buy American” in the United States, to quote a movement from the 1970s and 1980s. Most carmakers have headquarters in several countries and are owned by major stockholders in several countries. They have parts factories and assembly factories in various countries. Hours of research would be needed to choose a make and model of car and determine how much it was “made in America.”

When a company based in the United States builds a factory in Mexico, they are hoping to reduce their expenses to increase their profit. However, they are also hoping to pass some of the savings to their customers, beating the competition with their better prices. At the same time, by providing paychecks to Mexican workers, they are increasing the likelihood that more products “made in America” will be bought in Mexico, which increases jobs or enlarges paychecks in the United States.

Globalization is complicated. No easy answers exist for the problems it causes, and those problems are offset in many ways by the benefits of globalization. As long as travel remains rapid and communication remains instant, globalization is unavoidable. The best we can do is work to preserve local customs and manners while we enjoy the fact that nothing is truly local any more—everything is international. J.