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A Flawed Father

15 Feb

As a lover of American history, I think one of the most extraordinary early moments in our nation was the first peaceful transfer of power — when President George Washington handed over the reins to his successor, John Adams.

But as a Philadelphian, I’m also keenly aware of Washington’s flaws. I say “as a Philadelphian,” because of course our city was the first capital city of the young United States, and Washington lived here in what we now refer to as the President’s House.

Washington owned enslaved people. More to the point, at the time, Pennsylvania had a law that if an enslaved person lived here for more than 6 months, he or she would become free.

Portrait of George Washington's Cook [Hercules]

Portrait of George Washington’s Cook Hercules, reputedly by artist Gilbert Stuart. Copyright © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Used by permission.

So President George Washington, father of our country, purposely sent the human beings he owned out of Pennsylvania every six months, so that none of them could ever become free.

Just think about the cruelty of that for a moment. Imagine being an enslaved person living in Philadelphia. You would likely have socialized with people in the city’s lively free black community. At a minimum, you would have had some level of interaction with them. You would have gleaned that after six months in Philadelphia, you too would have the opportunity to become free.

And then — cruelty of cruelties — as the time approached that you would have gained your freedom, you would have been exiled back to Washington’s Mt. Vernon plantation in Virginia. Or perhaps just taken across the river to New Jersey for a day or two. Either exercise would have accomplished the same malevolent goal: Resetting the countdown clock to freedom.

This isn’t an imaginary exercise. It actually happened to real people. One of them was a man known as Hercules, a respected chef who gained unusual prominence for an enslaved person. (Among other things, he had his portrait pointed, reputedly by the famous artist Gilbert Stuart. See illustration at right.)

Even while Hercules enjoyed remarkable prestige, he was still legally treated as property. And thus it is probably not surprising that, on George Washington’s 65 birthday, Hercules escaped. Not only did he escape, but he was never recaptured, as this story recounts.

Today, there is an embryonic effort underway to try to get the above painting of Hercules brought back to the US from Spain, where it currently hangs in a museum. One blogger proposes that it should be swapped with an unrelated (but meaningful to Spain) painting from the White House in Washington DC.

While I think it would be quite fitting for Hercules’s portrait to hang in one of our most revered national landmarks, I can’t help but think about another landmark much closer to home. The Liberty Bell is located just steps away from the grounds of the old President’s House in Philadelphia.

Either way, on this Presidents’ Day, spare a moment to remember this extraordinary person. Regardless of where Hercules finished out his life — it doesn’t seem to have been Philadelphia — he did so on his own terms: In freedom.


People you should know: Solomon Jones (second in a series)

23 Jun
Solomon Jones headshot

Solomon Jones

Solomon Jones is a multimedia editor and writer for Axis Philly and WHYY’s NewsWorks site.

Learn more about Axis Philly and his work in this terrific Loraine Ballard Morrill radio interview.

I’ve posted links to Jones’s work here before. Most recently, he’s been doing projects for Axis Philly on the School District.

Below is a video he put together from their recent forum on the closing of Bok High School.

For NewsWorks, he writes a regular column that often focuses on people helping to build a better and more caring community. His latest column advises fathers to fight for the opportunity to be present in their children’s lives.

One of the things I most appreciate about Jones is that he hasn’t forgotten his roots. That could mean a lot of things, but in this case it means keeping in mind that many Philadelphians have pretty tough lives.Dead Man's Wife book cover

Jones himself survived tough times, including homelessness and addiction. You can read more about his remarkable personal story in this NPR interview.

Today, he teaches a creative writing class called Words on the Street for parents and teens. It’s offered through the Schoool District’s Parent University program.

He’s also a novelist. Interestingly, he created a video trailer for his latest mystery/thriller novel, The Dead Man’s Wife.

Watch the trailer:

Probably the easiest way to stay up-to-date with Jones’s myriad activities to make Philadelphia better is to follow him on Twitter. I recommend it.

Together but separate

18 Jun

Earlier this year Philadelphia suffered an unnecessary punch to the gut when a local magazine decided to publish An Article About Race. Regardless of how well-intentioned some of the parties may have been,* the resulting piece set off a firestorm.

*Emphasize either the “some” or the “may” in this sentence, as you prefer.

I won’t use up your time recapping the events here; there is plenty written elsewhere. I mention it only because one of the outcomes was this: Several (well, at least two) African-American writers are now working as bloggers for the Philly Post.

Sandy Smith is one of those bloggers, and one of his recent columns caught my eye:

Recently, a white friend of mine who lives up my way wanted to bend my ear about personal stuff and invited me to meet him at a popular Mt. Airy bar.

When I walked into McMenamin’s, I recognized a scene that was very Mt. Airy: About half the patrons in the bar were black and half were white, and everyone was enjoying themselves.

My friend recognized something else. He pointed out to me that the two groups of patrons, while in the same space, weren’t really interacting with the other.

Rather, they were enjoying themselves separately together. Ours was the only interracial dialogue in the room….

And that’s a shame.

How much better would this city be, how much safer, how much more pleasant, if we regularly crossed those dividing lines with others around us?

I like that Smith includes safer. It always amazes me how fearful many Philadelphians are about traveling outside their comfort zones, either geographically or figuratively.

Of course, some people have good reason to be fearful: If they’ve been assaulted or harassed for being where they “don’t belong,” it can feel safer and easier to stay away from those spaces.

But for many people, the big fear seems simply to be — well, for lack of a better word, awkwardness. They don’t want to feel out of place; they don’t want to be noticeable.

And — especially among white people — they don’t want their race/ethnicity to be marked. They’re accustomed to the luxury of not having their race be noted, and they feel weird when it is.

Smith continues:

I’m particularly sensitive to this subject because I’ve straddled those dividing lines all my life as part of the first generation of African-Americans who could truly grow up integrated if they—or their families—so chose….

I’ve since learned that this sort of straddling, while perhaps common in the world of work, remains rare in the social sphere. And those who try, find it a challenge to achieve.

I suspect part of the reason it’s a challenge is that it takes more than a single person to do it. And our society can be pretty serious about policing the boundaries when anyone tries to step outside — even in as minimal a way as having a drink at your local watering hole.

Preaching it

13 Jun

A while back, I had the privilege of hearing Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speak. At one point during her talk, she recalled her starting salary just out of law school — $17,000.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (Photo credit: Wikipedia.)

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (Photo credit: Wikipedia.)

She said, “That was more than my mother ever made.”

It seemed like a lot of money, she said. Then: “To some people, seventeen thousand dollars still IS a lot of money.”

It was a powerful moment. One of the nine most powerful judges in the world was acknowledging that poor people exist in the United States today — and that she actually understood what poverty could mean.

I thought of that today when I saw this video clip of State Senator Vincent Hughes’ recent speech in the state legislature on funding for education and healthcare.

Senator Vincent Hughes headshot

Pennsylvania Senator Vincent Hughes

Watch his passionate, informed speech now. Or take a look at the (long) excerpt below.

We have a solution in front of us that would help about a half a million people in Pennsylvania.

People who are working every day.  Many of them working two, three, and sometimes four jobs on a daily basis. They’re trying to make ends meet.

They’re not making a lot of money. They have drive, they have perseverance, they have faith — they have to have faith, because if they didn’t have faith, my best guess is they would not be able to make it through. They really wouldn’t.

They work every day. They’re cleaning bodies — of the infirm, the elderly, those who are sick, those who are disabled. They’re helping folks get to their job.

They’re providing security for us. Which is even more important on a daily basis as the level of violence seems to rise….

They work in our neighborhoods, they work in our communities. They do the work that just about all of us would not know how to do if we were asked to do it ourselves.

But all of us depend on these individuals. They work in this building. They service this building. They work every day. They’re real people with real lives.

The thing that they’re missing — because they’ve got everything else, they’ve got the drive, they’ve got the determination, they show up early. Very early.

They work the late shift, the overnight shift. They work the early shift. They take the early bus. Some of you may understand what that means. They put it in.

The thing that they’re missing, the thing that’s absent in their lives…is health insurance. The ability to go to a doctor and to get a problem taken care of.

Healthcare! We all know about it. Every one of us in this building — or at least those of us who sit in these grand chairs in this chamber, the 49, the 50 senators, the 203 House members, the folks in this administration, we. all. have. health insurance. We understand the value of that!

There are folks who I know who have a problem — but they’ve got insurance. That’s the first question. They’re taken care of.

But these individuals — there’s over a million of them in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. They don’t have health insurance. But they work every day. They have a window of opportunity of a solution to their problem.

It’s right in front of us. It’s been provided to us. Plus the money to pay for it!

Four billion dollars a year, coming to Pennsylvania to provide health insurance to provide health insurance for about five hundred thousand working people in Pennsylvania.

And by the way, most of these working individuals are women. They’re heading families. They’re working every day. And they just need a little bit of help.

And the program is right there. It’s right within our grasp to take. It’s right there!

Three independent studies have said, “It is OK to do, Pennsylvania.” Over half the states in the nation have said, We’re going to take this program, we’re going to put it in place in our state, we’re going to make it work for our citizens.

And quite frankly it doesn’t just help those who don’t have insurance, it helps everyone, including those of us who have insurance, because it has the opportunity to lower our own personal rates, because everyone else is covered.

Right there in front of us. It’s like this glass of water. You’re thirsty — it’s right there in front of us.

It’s paid for. The water’s in the glass. The glass is sitting right there. It’s right there in front of us, but someone is pulling it away from us, not allowing us to have it.

The health insurance is there. The coverage is in place. Help is available for those who need the insurance.

But we keep getting stall tactics, day in and day out, from the front office, about why this cannot be done.

We got some smart people in Pennsylvania. Smart enough to know that if 25 other states could do it, surely we could do the same thing.

In the trenches

10 Jun

Following up on my earlier post about the School District’s layoffs, I thought I’d excerpt this stunner of a letter from one of those 3,800 laid-off employees.

Students standing in formation to spell out "PEACE"

Photo credit: Alice Heller

Good Morning, Sir,

I received my notice Saturday. I got it early in the morning, so it could stick in the back of my brain all weekend like a splinter in a finger….

The letter mentions to let someone at the School District of Philadelphia know if you are a veteran. I served honorably for 21 years in the Pennsylvania National Guard and have deployed twice in service to my country. I am honorably discharged and hold the status of retiree from the army….

I successfully completed the Troops to Teachers Program and I have been teaching in the District since January of 2009….

Since coming to the District, I found equipment when there was none, I created curriculum when there was nothing, I did without when we needed supplies….

For the last four years, I have struggled, alongside the most courageous and honorable people I have ever worked with, to teach the students, feed the students, clothe the students, protect the students, and lead the students….

I realize that there are always forces beyond my control, but know that if you break up our team at Crossroads, you will damage one of the few systems in the School District of Philadelphia that is actually working. We are strong because of the integration of our curriculum, the dedication of our small but determined band of educators, and because we have the proper leadership to carry us through.

I understand that every school and employee will claim the same, but we are truly different. If you break us up now, you will lose one small program that is making a profound impact on the fabric of our city.

Sincerely and respectfully,

Harvey Scribner
​Crossroads Accelerated Academy at Elverson

Read the whole thing, as they say. (Note: I am the one who added the link in Mr. Scribner’s letter above — it goes to a prior article published in The Notebook about Crossroads Accelerated Academy, where he teaches.)

Then check out Faces of the Layoffs, a new blog featuring stories of people who have been laid off.

I am all too intimately aware of the School District’s many failings. I could write a book about all of the screwups and idiocy I have witnessed.

But the solution to those problems is not to abandon our commitment to the very concept of public education.

Update: Per the comment below, the photo should be credited to Principal Alice Heller. Many thanks!

Anna Deavere Smith

26 May

Anna Deavere Smith headshot

A recent announcement:

Philadelphia Theatre Company will host a residency for Anna Deavere Smith leading to the creation of [a] new work, The Pipeline Project, thanks to a generous gift from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation….

The Pipeline Project will address the increasing numbers of American youngsters – especially African-American males – being “shuttled” from school into the criminal justice system.

During her 2013-2015 residency at PTC, Smith will use elements of the theatre process that she has refined over the past three decades to create a compelling theatre piece that is also an opportunity to spark city-wide dialogue and public engagement about our education system and our civic responsibilities to children.

Emphasis mine. My initial response: Extremely ambitious, but intriguing.

Smith explains, “In The Pipeline Project I plan to use not only what I know about creating a drama, but also what I know about creating conversation, to make the process as well as the product useful to the cause of increasing awareness about what is happening to our young people. I also intend to create new audiences and spur advocacy while doing so.”

I get nervous when people talk about things like “the cause of increasing awareness,” in part because I’m not at all sure that the problem of young people and incarceration is one of awareness.

“Create new audiences” also sounds pretty ambitious. If I’m reading it right, the focus is on getting people who haven’t attended PTC’s productions in the past to attend them.

Not totally clear what the mechanism for that would be, except that human beings in general like to see their stories represented. Maybe ADS’s new story (play) will bring in some people who traditionally have felt under-represented in American theater.

She continued: “I am delighted to be returning to work with [Philadelphia Theatre Company] both because of their track record, which is unquestionable, and because this is a theatre which at its very root has compassion. The project that I am about to create requires an environment that can support it artistically, but also, has, in its own DNA, true civic empathy.”

Emphasis mine, again.

I like her phrase “civic empathy.” I have been a fan of Smith’s since her book Talk to Me, and I really loved seeing a workshop production of her play “Let Me Down Easy.”

Unfortunately, when I saw the full production of the latter a year later, it had become disturbingly celebrity-focused and seemed to be staggering under the weight of Trying to Say Something About the American Healthcare System.

I sincerely hope this new production is let alone by its funders/minders — so that ADS can do what she does best, eliciting and dramatizing extraordinary stories.