In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I urge you to read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. This book, more than any other I’ve read, provides historical context for the state of relations between blacks and whites in America today. There’s a reason it won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2010, just as there’s a reason Wilkerson won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1994.
Wilkerson chronicles the massive, though perhaps little-known, migrations of African Americans out of the southeastern region of the United States, between 1915 and 1970. While closely following the lives of three people, she more broadly discusses the stressful and dangerous circumstances under which millions of African Americans migrated. If you’ve ever wanted to understand institutionalized racism—or have ever been skeptical about the concept—this book is well worth your time.
Never forget that what was done yesterday influences what takes place today.
Quotes from The Warmth of Other Suns
People like Ida Mae had few options, and the landlords knew it. New arrivals often paid twice the rent charged the whites they had just replaced for worn-out and ill-kept housing. “The rents in the South Side Negro district were conspicuously the highest of all districts visited,” Abbott wrote. Dwellings that went for eight to twenty dollars a month to white families were bringing twelve to forty-five dollars a month from black families, those earning the least income and thus least able to afford a flat at any rent, in the early stages of the Migration. Thus began a pattern of overcharging and underinvestment in black neighborhoods that would lay the foundation for decades of economic disparities in the urban North.
Like other mass migrations, it was not a haphazard unfurling of lost souls but a calculable and fairly ordered resettlement of people along the most direct route to what they perceived as freedom, based on railroad and bus lines. The migration streams were so predictable that by the end of the Migration, and, to a lesser degree, even now, one can tell where a black northerner’s family was from just by the city the person grew up in—a good portion of blacks in Detroit, for instance, having roots in Tennessee, Alabama, western Georgia, or the Florida panhandle because the historic rail lines connected those places during the Migration years.
[The Illinois Central Railroad] carried so many southern blacks north that Chicago would go from 1.58 percent black at the start of the twentieth century to one-third black by the time the flow of people finally began to slow in 1970. Detroit’s black population would skyrocket from 1.4 percent to 44 percent during the era of the Migration.
The children, having emerged from one-room schoolhouses with their southern English, were often labeled retarded by northern school officials, regardless of their native abilities. Segregation was not the law, but northerners would find creative ways to segregate the migrant children from the white children when so inclined.
“Here Is New York” is an essay E.B. White—yes, of Charlotte’s Web fame—wrote in 1948 for Holiday, a long-since defunct travel magazine. The essay reads as you would expect up until its last few pages. White is crisp and concise, and, as far as essays go, “Here Is New York” is enjoyable.
It’s interesting how few surprises there are throughout the essay, whether White is discussing his personal experiences of living in New York or about the tourist’s, the outsider’s, limited understanding of the city. At the time of White’s writing, New York City was slightly less extravagant and built up (there are a million more people in the city now), but some parts of the culture remain the same.
Perhaps New York really is as unchanging as White sometimes says he thinks it is or perhaps his opinion of the Big Apple—that it is a sprawling, diverse, detached, noisy, busy, and lonesome place, all at once—has become mainstream over the decades. This complex understanding of a multifaceted, contradictory New York is what I’ve grown up with in music, books, and movies. I think most of us, whether we have visited the city or not, know New York is somewhat of a double-edged sword, as most big cities are. Some dreams are realized there, while others are destroyed.
It’s toward the end of the essay that White takes a decidedly gloomy turn as he more critically analyzes various elements of New York (e.g., its racism) and imagines the city’s future, which he sees as being overshadowed by a subtle fear of its own demise. With such a change in tone, “Here Is New York” becomes an unusual and slightly eerie tale by its closing.
White is wary of overpopulation and disturbed by the neon lights and advertising displays that are sprouting up all over the city. (If he could see it now!) Media changes before his eyes as newspapers disappear or merge with others. He senses a “greater tension, increased irritability” that is, these days, quintessentially tied to New York and the average New Yorker. “The city has never been so uncomfortable,” he writes. To White, this comes down to the underlying fear of destruction, the fear that New York has grown to be so large, so important, that there are some who will want to destroy it and may even succeed in doing so. There’s a reason many have said White’s words seem prophetic.
I’m not sure what you can learn about New York from White’s essay that you won’t already know. But the writing is elegant, and the powerful closing makes up for any initial slowness. I may not “heart” New York as so many do, but E.B. White simultaneously makes me thankful for the passage of time and wistful for a younger, slightly stripped-down version of the city.
Buy Here Is New York from Amazon
Quotes from Here Is New York
I think that although many persons are here from some excess of spirit (which caused them to break away from their small town), some, too, are here from a deficiency of spirit, who find in New York a protection, or an easy substitution.
It is a miracle that New York works at all. The whole thing is implausible. Every time the residents brush their teeth, millions of gallons of water must be drawn from the Catskills and the hills of Westchester. When a young man in Manhattan writes a letter to his girl in Brooklyn, the love message gets blown to her through a pneumatic tube—pfft—just like that.
All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.
The Grand Design aims to give readers a basic understanding of physics so they can then understand how physicists and cosmologists are answering—or at least trying to answer—some of the world’s biggest and most confusing questions.
Sometimes Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow accomplish what they’ve set out to do. They throw in an amusing historical fact to keep you interested in dry material, use basic and familiar concepts to make more difficult ones approachable, and they mostly write in a clear and concise fashion. Unfortunately, other parts of the book are bogged down by the overuse of less familiar terms or, worse, acronyms.
Hawking and Mlodinow Know Physics, but Do they Know Everything?
This isn’t purely an informational text. It’s also an argument. Hawking and Mlodinow attempt to show how the physical laws of the universe make it so that a creator, a god, is not necessary for our existence. From a technical standpoint, they argue, everything we know can and has come from nothing. Gods, therefore, are entirely irrelevant. Moreover, there are many worlds out there, some not so different from our own, so it only stands to reason that at least one, at least ours, has supported intelligent life (or mostly intelligent, anyway) at random.
As you might suspect, this idea causes controversy in some circles because it leaves little room for more literal interpretations in religion. As such, whether Hawking and Mlodinow convince you that we exist thanks to nothing and no one probably depends on whether you enter into the book as a deeply religious person or as an agnostic/atheist. That’s just the way of things. Personally, I’m holding out for the computer simulation theory because it would be hilarious.
My biggest complaint with The Grand Design is its lack of source material. As much as I admire Hawking and Mlodinow and don’t at all doubt they know what they’re talking about when it comes to physics, I expect a bibliography if they’re going to talk about subjects outside of their fields (as they do). You have no idea where they get some of their historical information, and this isn’t solely a book of their theories for them not to cite sources. I expect unsourced statements from Wikipedia or in an essay written by a hungover college student (sometimes one in the same), not from a book written by some of the most respected scientists of our time. At the very least, there should be a “further reading” section.
The Grand Design is a pretty good read, but it didn’t impress me as much as I expected it to, and not merely because of a few muddled explanations or the absent bibliography. Interestingly, many of the newest, most cutting-edge theories discussed in this book were ones I was already very familiar with by way of science news articles. Whether that’s testament to Hawking and Mlodinow or the media’s growing interest in our universe, or even my own nerdiness, I’m not sure. What I got from this book was a more stable foundation with which to better understand some of the theories I read about, but it’s only a starting point, and I can’t help but think there are better “basics” books out there.
Quotes from The Grand Design
In 1992 the Roman Catholic Church finally acknowledged that it had been wrong to condemn Galileo.
The laws of M-theory therefore allow for different universes with different apparent laws, depending on how the internal space is curled.
One thing that may have been apparent even in early times was that either the universe was a very recent creation or else human beings have existed for only a small fraction of cosmic history. That’s because the human race has been improving so rapidly in knowledge and technology that if people had been around for millions of years, the human race would be much further along in its mastery.
Christmas traditions are far less organic than we are led to believe. Using countless sources, from diary excerpts, to almanacs, illustrations, and children’s books, author Stephen Nissenbaum unravels the mysteries of Santa, Christmas gift-giving, and more in The Battle for Christmas. How did winter misrule evolve into the child-centered domestic affair we know so well today?
Christmas Celebrations or Class Warfare?
Having read reviews beforehand, I knew The Battle for Christmas covered more than reindeer and tinsel, but the scope of the book still surprised me. Nissenbaum considered every angle from which to view Christmas—the politics that shaped it; the religion that resisted, then reinforced, it; and the economies that commodified it. Nissenbaum’s writing is dry and slow at times, but his research is impressive, and you have to admit the topic’s interesting. Beware, though. This book may turn you into that person who ruins all the fun at Christmas parties.
The Battle for Christmas is made up of a preface, seven (overly long) chapters, and an epilogue. The first two chapters are the most informative. They cover the early history of Christmas in America, wherein you learn the holiday was not some quaint cultural import, be it from Anglo pagans or Christians, but rather a carefully crafted modification of an existing winter “misrule” enjoyed by the working poor and begrudgingly tolerated by the wealthy. Some of the wealthiest, men we might now call Scrooges and Grinches, created the modern Santa and other Christmas lore.
While other chapters offer interesting and oftentimes amusing tidbits of information about gift-giving, Christmas trees, and holiday charity, these initial chapters were the ones I found not only enlightening (e.g., Puritans tried to ban Christmas!), but also infuriating. Reading about wealthy society’s contempt for the poor they disenfranchised will have you laughing in disbelief and maybe even feeling a little nauseated. The subtle, and at other times blatant, class warfare documented in this book makes you realize how far American society has come. It also makes you realize how much work there is left to do—if you didn’t realize that already.
And in 1822 (the year “A Visit from St. Nicholas” appeared), John Pintard explained to his daughter just why he was opposed to the new state constitution adopted that year, a constitution that gave men without property the right to vote: “All power,” Pintard wrote, “is to be given, by the right of universal suffrage, to a mass of people, especially in this city, which has no stake in society. It is easier to raise a mob than to quell it, and we shall hereafter be governed by rank democracy…. Alas that the proud state of New York should be engulfed in the abyss of ruin.”
In short, [this “small group of antiquarian-minded New York gentlemen”] felt that they belonged to a patrician class whose authority was under siege. From that angle, their invention of Santa Claus was part of what we can now see as a larger, ultimately quite serious cultural enterprise: forging a pseudo-Dutch identity for New York, a placid “folk” identity that could provide a cultural counterweight to the commercial bustle and democratic “misrule” of early-nineteenth-century New York.
One thing I enjoy about Nissenbaum’s work is his use of primary sources. You don’t merely learn about the history of Christmas this way. You also learn about the individuals who wrote about the holiday’s inception and the surrounding culture and events of the time. It’s through these quotes and excerpts on day-to-day life that you’re able to watch the winter holidays evolve with each passing generation. By the mid 1800s, a mere 30 years after Pintard’s above statement to his daughter, Christmas seems rather familiar:
But nowadays, things are different: “‘There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got.'”
While reading, I couldn’t decide whether it was comforting or disheartening to know Christmas has been a deeply commercialized holiday from the beginning and that people are saying the same things about it today that they did a century and a half ago. It would seem Americans, in particular, have always struggled to find meaning in manufactured traditions and gifts. If the history of this book tells you anything, it might be that such American yearning for authenticity around the holidays is unlikely to change any time soon.
Even people who fervently believe in market capitalism sometimes blame it for cheapening Christmas. But what this book has suggested is that there never was a time when Christmas existed as an unsullied domestic idyll, immune to the taint of commercialism. It has argued that the domestic Christmas was the commercial Christmas—commercial from its earliest stages, commercial at its very core. Indeed, the domestic Christmas was itself a force in the spread of consumer capitalism.
The Battle for Christmas should probably be shorter: Nissenbaum is far too eager to share all his research. Small flaws aside, though, you can learn a lot from this book about the supposed sacredness of traditions and the manipulation of culture and history. We would all do well to take our rituals with a grain of salt and be open to changing them. And why not? It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve been altered.
Quotes from The Battle for Christmas
Indeed, at the time Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” in 1822, he himself owned five slaves.
Newsboys were drawn from the poorest classes of large cities; often they were homeless–in fact, the word newsboy was sometimes used interchangeably with homeless boy or street arab. … Newsboys may have been a new phenomenon in the late 1830s, but they fit a social and demographic profile that had long been associated with rituals of Christmas misrule: They were poor and youthful males. So it is no wonder that they took to acting up with particular intensity during the holiday season.
Alcott’s program was controversial from the beginning–for example, when his pupils misbehaved badly, Alcott would punish them by ordering them to whip him!