I recently read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. In it there’s a brief exchange between a young shepherd who’s wrestling with the idea of pursuing his life dream, and a wise old man who eggs him on.
The exchange goes like this:
“What’s the world’s greatest lie?” the boy asked, completely surprised.
“It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.”
The idea of fate as a catalyst in American history is peculiar. For decades following the country’s founding, the American experiment was largely considered to be by design. In some eras, perhaps even today, it was thought to be sanctioned by God. Conversely, Americans can feel uncomfortable with the idea that their country and their national history are not driven explicitly by them, the people; fate takes control out of their hands and leaves the future up to chance—it’s unsettling to have no autonomy over your life and its direction.
But we’re hard pressed to consider the presence of fate when it comes to some of America’s most notable figures. Imagine if George Washington had not dodged at least four bullets in the French and Indian War, more than 30 years before he became the first president? Where would we be today had he not defied death?
Since Washington, no other president has looked death in the face and lived to tell the tale more often than Theodore Roosevelt. (In 1912, Roosevelt famously delivered a 50-page speech more than an hour long after he was shot in the chest with a .38-caliber revolver.) Can we really say fate was not at play when he nearly died in Pittsfield, Massachusetts?
Image via Arnold Gatilao (CC BY 2.0)
George Washington is always depicted as a solemn individual. From the dollar bill to the National Portrait Gallery, Washington is consistently precisely dressed, masculinely posed, and practically frowning. He was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”1 He was our first president and arguably most famous American. He secured a place in American folklore, like the Cherry Tree myth where a six-year-old Washington, wiser than his years, proclaims “I cannot tell a lie.”2
But his place in American legend fogs the fact that Washington was a person like us, one with flaws, imperfections, and sometimes questionable tastes. Through his quirky sense of humor, we can strip away the glossy veneer of Washington: the historical figure and get better acquainted with Washington: the man. For, like many of us, he had at times a slapstick, situational, lowbrow, and deadpan sense of humor, sometimes coarse, cutting, and sometimes cringe-worthy.
He didn’t refrain from laughing at lewd jokes or the physical pain of others. Sometimes he was the center of a comedic situation simply because of his good nature, the brawny Washington an awkward if not comical sight when performing acts of genuine kindness to others unexpectedly, appearing, if only for a few moments, a mere mortal instead of a living legend.
Alexander Stephens (1859)/ Image via Public Domain
On Sunday, May 21, 1865, the president and vice president of the Confederate States of America bade each other farewell. The latter would recall of the former, “he seemed more affected than I had ever seen him. He said nothing but good-bye, and gave my hand a cordial squeeze; his tone evinced deep feeling and emotion.”
It would be the last time rebel leaders Alexander Stephens and Jefferson Davis would shake hands.
Stephens had been arrested ten days prior at his estate in Crawfordville, GA — the main house of which he ironically named Liberty Hall — on charges of treason. He had woke that day, May 11, “a most beautiful and charming morning,” ate breakfast and wrote letters, and learned Union cavalry had descended on the rustic Georgia town to apprehend him. After a short time packing necessities, and no time to send word to his family, he boarded a Union train bound for Washington D.C.
It wasn’t until nine days later, while afloat off the coast of Virginia, that he learned his destination had been rerouted to Boston.
“I knew then that Fort Warren was to be my place of imprisonment.”
— Continue reading
It’s been difficult, as of late, for Boston to maintain its distinction as one of the foremost liberal, progressive, tolerant, and accepting cities in the country.
Twice this year the city’s solemn Holocaust Memorial was shattered by projectiles hurled by locals, the first in June by a Roxbury man, the second on Monday by a Malden 17-year-old. Prior, since its dedication in 1995, it had stood unscathed.
Boston was called the most racist city by SNL cast member Michael Che. Baseball player Adam Jones was subjected to racial slurs in the outfield of Fenway Park.
On a fairly regular basis, it seems, incidents and encounters such as these teem to the surface, tearing the scar of racism before it’s ever been fully healed — if it ever can be. And almost every time Boston residents recall about its most infamous race-related moment: busing.
In order to create a unified front against these ongoing acts of racism, of which recent incidents also include a man being called the “n-word” while walking down the street and a woman being struck with an umbrella and berated with anti-Islamic slurs on the subway, the residents and government of Boston must rally behind the city’s seemingly forgotten heritage of standing up to such prejudices instead of defaulting to recollections of the busing incident, which does not define Boston’s attitude toward minorities.
Heirloom portrait of Robert E. Lee sitting in my closet.
One fond memory of a trip to Gettysburg National Park consisted of my siblings, my cousins, and myself participating in a juvenile reenactment of the battle, complete with replica hats, jackets, and a discussion of soldierly life.
The instillment of the Civil War era in my life made it so the very idea of the conflict edged unassumingly along the spectrum of familiarity to complacency; to me Lee was always more of a character in a dramatic historical play, more protagonist than antagonist.
Consequently, I never considered the differing perspectives various people might have of the portrait of Robert E. Lee that hung in my childhood home, stoically placed as if the general himself were keeping watch over us.
I never thought twice about asking my parents for the portrait when they moved out of their house and downsized to a condo lacking abundant of wall space for Lee to reside.
Robert E. Lee/ Image via Public Domain
In today’s United States, racial and socioeconomic tensions are amplified by the rapidity of Internet sharing. The senseless death of a young minority by the member of an historically oppressive race can ignite the emotions of Americans from one corner of the country to the other in a matter of minutes, like a spark in a tinderbox on a bed of kindling.
Cities are attempting to revise the mindsets of those who harbor racist sympathies and to promote race equality by taking aim at the tangible symbols that evoke sentiments of inequality.
In New Orleans, for example, “adversaries marched in a second-line parade to the traffic circle where [Confederate General Robert E.] Lee’s statue stands — centurion-like, stationed above the treeline atop a white stone pedestal — to protest the monument’s place in the circle and to bury Lee’s place in history, which some revere and others revile.”
The basic argument against monuments like Lee’s in New Orleans is that Lee was the leader of the Confederate Army which fought and killed on behalf of a loose band of belligerent, secessionist states that advocated for the institution of slavery — i.e., Lee is one of the de facto faces of slavery in America and is undeserving of celebratory recognition.
Conversely, there are those who think preserving the legacy of Confederate soldiers who laid down their lives for a certain belief is something of a civic and moral obligation. Individually those rebels are ancestors; collectively they comprise a regional heritage.
I happen to think that when it comes to contentious memorials such as those of notorious Confederates, they should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
When it comes to Lee, I happen to think he should be lauded. Jefferson Davis, no thank you.
Front Street, Hamilton, Bermuda/ Image via the author
Hamilton is a modest municipality, the capital city of the modest British Overseas Territory of Bermuda. Its narrow streets buzz with scooters, compressed cars, and buses that look more like minivans in comparison to the larger caravans seen here in the States. Lining the roads is an eclectic display of architecture.
Front Street, Hamilton’s main thoroughfare, stretches along the northern edge of Hamilton Harbour and behind it the city sits perched on a gentle slope dotted with buildings that exemplify Hamilton’s blend of Western influence and native style.
Limestone storefronts are coated with vibrant, coral blues, yellows, and reds. Rooftops carved and stepped, designed to catch and funnel rainwater into underground holding tanks. Gothic Revival houses of worship standing stoically next to ramshackle take-out restaurants alongside cafes seemingly transported from the Iberian Peninsula.
Off of Front Street is a stout pier called Point Pleasant, home to a park of the same name canopied by slender Bermuda Palmettos. Standing at the tip of the Pier, known as Albouy’s Point, one has a direct view of the sailboats and luxury vessels anchored at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club to the right, the craggy Harbour islands just beyond, and a clear line of sight to the coastline across the azure water.