The first novel by a black woman I read was “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. She was and still is a controversial figure, but that introduction for me, a white male, to a black woman’s insights, made a deep impression.Hurston, at 9, was essentially abandoned by her father and stepmother. She didn’t get along with them, and they didn’t understand their complicated, intelligent daughter. However, abandonment didn’t faze Hurston. As a young adult, she turned up at Morgan State University in Baltimore with nothing but her talent for observation and learning. They served her well as she continued studies at Howard University in Washington, DC, then Barnard School of Columbia University, where she was the only black student, and finally Columbia University itself. She earned a degree in anthropology at the same time that she was writing short stories. Finishing school, she began cultural research of black Southern communities, where she documented local tales and history. Along with her life, those stories became the backbone of the novels she wrote as she joined other black writers and activists in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s.At her height, Hurston was a well-known figure for her research and books. She wrote four novels along with several non-fiction works on black culture and folklore. However, Hurston fell into obscurity in the 1940s as she differed with other black leaders on education and politics. Her work in folklore led her to represent speech patterns with dialect in novels. Other blacks resented the dialect, saying it demeaned blacks and only added to the cultural misconceptions that whites had of African Americans.I understand opposition to depicting dialect in novels. It can be used to degrade people because of the way they speak, especially uneducated people. But Hurston and other writers of the times were not doing it to demean people, but to depict their lives and situations as they were. But Hurston had political and social views that were just wrong.Hurston opposed President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and she was against integration in some cases. She believed Roosevelt’s social platform was harmful, making black Americans dependent on social programs. Regarding integration, she thought black towns and schools could operate on their own and be just as good as white towns and schools. I think Hurston’s views were more a matter of pride than practical solutions for disadvantaged, oppressed people. There is nothing wrong with assistance in an unjust economic world. Also, races should cooperate, not turn the world into a field for competition. Besides, the races have never remained pure. There has always been interaction between cultures, and we don’t want to return to a world where countries, or people within countries, are debating or proving who is superior to whom. Hurston’s works gained interest again in 1975 when Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, reminded us of Hurston’s talent. Despite her radical views, Hurston’s novels and non-fiction works are insightful and still of interest today.
Jon Batiste has an infectious smile and outstanding talent, and he also has a genuine passion for people and a vision for human harmony.Batiste worked his way to musical perfection and recognition more than a decade ago, but the average American didn’t know about him until he and his band, Stay Human, became the house band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert five years ago. But Batiste is not just a comic sidekick for Colbert, even though that’s what people expect from a second banana to a late night show host. Batiste is a thoughtful, intelligent young man with a good nature that is evident in every interview he does and every project he involves himself in. For goodness sakes, as talented as he is, he started out playing music in public places and on public transportation just to meet people and share his music even though he wasn’t a busker.He is a musical genius, coming from a musical family in the New Orleans area. He began playing drums professionally with his family when he was eight. At 11, he switched to the piano and took lessons in classical music. He trained himself in songwriting by transcribing songs he heard on video games, then wrote and released his first album at 17 before moving on to Julliard School. In the seven years since finishing at Julliard, he has formed his band, produced and released music albums, performed concerts in 40 countries, found his way to becoming a TV personality, and as of late, co-wrote the score for a recent Disney movie Soul.I discovered Jon Batiste on YouTube years ago, and he has constantly amazed me with his talent. Jazz, which Batiste was raised on, is not my musical preference, but Batiste’s repertoire ranges wider than one genre. But even when he performs jazz, I appreciate his music, which Batiste calls “social music.” He describes it as “love, joy and community … through musical exchanges and … the blueprint of these kinds of exchanges are found in the centuries of history in humankind before music was commodified.” So while he is an innovator, Batiste does not dismiss tradition. Batiste says that while each generation looks for their own musical expression, all movements should build and maintain the artistic traditions of the past. They don’t arise to displace what came before, but enhance and build on them.Batiste also recognizes his responsibility as a public figure to stand up for truth and justice. He participated in the March for Science rally in Washington, DC, in 2014, which encouraged governmental policies to be guided and determined by evidence and facts, and promotes a sustainable economy in America, as well as equality. Batiste’s latest appearance in that role occurred last year in Harlem at a Black Lives Matter peaceful protest in Harlem, where he is the music director of The Atlantic and the creative director of the National Jazz Museum, all at the age of 34.
My favorite civil rights leader of all time is Frederick Douglass, the nineteenth-century abolitionist. He was a blend of twentieth-century leaders we know so well now, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Douglass exhibited the self-control and patience of King, but he also had the fire and aggressiveness of Malcolm X.Douglass’ face is as instantly recognizable as the face of any other historically important person of his era: Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Walt Whitman, or Ralph Waldo Emerson. But Douglass started much lower socially than any of those figures. Douglass was born a slave, in Maryland, at a time when young black males were taken away from their mothers. Douglass never knew his biological father, who probably raped his mother, and he was reared for about seven years by his maternal grandmother before he was sent to be a household slave at a home in Baltimore. Douglass was shown some favor by the mistress of the house as she began teaching him to read. However, she stopped when confronted by her husband who told her she would ruin Douglass as a slave. Then at sixteen, Douglass was sent to work on a plantation where he was frequently beaten by an overseer.It’s hard to imagine that anyone would be able to rise above the unjust and despicable treatment he received. But Douglass was no ordinary person. When the lessons from his mistress stopped, he sought help from young white children. Then when he could read, he began teaching other slaves, naturally in secret. From his self-education and reading, Douglass did “get ruined.” He learned that the United States did not observe its own principle that all men are created equal, damning some of its citizens to slavery and poverty. Douglass decided to do something about that beginning with defying the slave system, fighting back against his overseer then escaping, fleeing north to earn his freedom. There, asked to speak at an anti-slavery convention in 1841, he became a force for abolishing slavery. He wrote an account of his life as a slave, which is now a classic of American literature, and he was such an important voice for blacks that he became a consultant to President Lincoln.The foul and hurtful treatment Douglass suffered also made him sensitive to the plight of others. Douglass not only fought for equal rights for blacks following the abolition of slavery, but he also advocated for women’s rights. I didn’t read Douglass’ slave account until I was in college. It wasn’t on the list of required reading in my high school, and it should have been. The book is not just a slave account. It’s a study in the history of the events that led to the Civil War. It’s an account of Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery and race. And it’s a study in courage, something we could use more of today given the recent rise in America of racism, xenophobia and hate speech.
If I could spend a day with one television naturalist, I would choose David Attenborough.He is not a flashy person, nor does he come across as a know-it-all. Wearing his usual plain-colored, rolled up long-sleeved shirt, and crumpled light tan pants, Attenborough always shows grace and patience with us ignorant sods.He has been a constant of calm, explaining the natural world with an eye for detail and thoroughness that comes across despite his unostentatious and modest manner. It’s as if he’s learning with us rather than instructing us. With slight inflections of tone and little jerks of his head and body, he conveys passion without the antics, high action or loud volume of other television naturalists.Attenborough began influencing Americans in the 1960s, not as a naturalist, but as a BBC controller in charge of programming. He led the creation of innovative programs, including Monty Python’s Flying Circus that set the subsequent tone for many American comedy programs.But Attenborough’s passion was the natural world and he couldn’t be kept from detailing its marvels.So in the late 1970s, Attenborough created Life on Earth, a 13-part nature series on evolution, partly funded by American companies. The series ended up being watched by more than 500 million people worldwide. It established Attenborough as the premier nature documentary maker. Over the years, Attenborough did not fail in retaining his reputation or his viewers.Five years after releasing Life on Earth, Attenborough released his next series, The Living Planet, a gloriously filmed work on the adaptions of Earth’s living things. Other programs followed over the years. Even in his 80s and 90s, Attenborough continued his work.Then last year, at 92 years of age, Attenborough released his latest work, A Life on Our Planet. The documentary is more personal, including remarks about his life and work with BBC.However, Attenborough’s real theme is one other scientists and naturalists have been raising with increased alarm over recent years – climate change and the disruption of Earth’s natural processes by man that has resulted in the loss of many species and the decline in numbers of almost all species.Attenborough’s latest documentary is done with the same patient, thorough argument, exquisite photography, and clear explanation that he has done all of his documentaries. In watching A Life on Our Planet, you recognize what a wonderful naturalist and person he is. He lays out a personal, logical, and passionate explanation for altering our lifestyles and changing our habits in order to save our planet from our destructive lifestyles and greed.
When Carl Sagan died, I thought there would never be a person who could replace him as the spokesman for astrophysics – then came Neil deGrasse Tyson.
In the last twenty-five years, Tyson has more than filled Sagan’s communicator’s shoes.When Sagan died, Tyson, who had been a fan and friend of Sagan, was becoming a prominent public figure. That year, Tyson was appointed the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City, leading the reconstruction of the facility.
He took up where Sagan left off, becoming not just a voice for astrophysics, but “the voice” for the field and other scientific disciplines and issues.
In 2014, Tyson hosted a television series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, that was structured like Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. That year, Smithsonian Magazine published an article that declared “Why Carl Sagan is Truly Irreplaceable.”
In the article, Tyson says that he was not trying to fill Sagan’s shoes, just be himself. But in the series and the subsequent years, Tyson has proven that he was the perfect person to follow Sagan.
I am not putting Sagan down when I say this, but Sagan was old style.
He was a lecturer in the traditional sense, and at times he could lose his audience in his expositions and reasoning. There’s a YouTube video of him speaking to young people about attempts to contact aliens, something that you think would hold the rapt attention of youths. But in the video, you can see many weary and disinterested faces in the audience. Sagan was intelligent, well-spoken, organized and enthusiastic, but those qualities do not always translate well to the next generation, especially one reared on computers, cable television and video games.
That’s where Tyson met the challenge.
Tyson is affable, genuine, flamboyant, entertaining, and clever. His excitement shows in his face and hands as much as they do in his words. You can’t watch the whirling of his hands and the changes of expression in his face without developing a deep interest in what he is saying. If Sagan inspired thousands of young people to take up the study of astrophysics and increased the scientific interests of millions of casual observers, Tyson has inspired tens of thousands of young people and tens of millions of amateurs.
His rich personality reaches out to a much wider audience than Sagan ever had.
Tyson just doesn’t lecture. He interacts with people. He answers his critics and science skeptics not only with well laid out arguments, but geniality, humor that’s not derisive, and passion.
He seems to be everywhere, on science shows, late night talk shows, radio game shows and podcasts. He hosts his own podcast and his subject matter has expanded as he is adept at being a source of reason on social and political issues.
Tyson, now in his early 60s, has many years left, and his magnetic personality will lead some to say at some point, he is irreplaceable.
Most authors you read occasionally or for a stretch at one time in your life, but not Mark Twain. Twain is an author whose books you read over and over throughout your life. I have.
In his writings, I’ve traveled down the Mississippi River, across the American West, and on to Hawaii, Europe, and the southern ocean.
But of even more interest, Twain is a writer who takes his readers further and further back in time. You start out reading about the late 1800s that he lived through in “The Gilded Age,” “Roughing it,” and “The Innocents Abroad,” then travel back to antebellum United States with “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” As you read more Twain, you travel even further to medieval England in “The Prince and the Pauper” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Read more and you’re in mid-Sixteenth Century with “The Mysterious Stranger” and then carried a couple centuries earlier with Joan of Arc. Finally, in “Letters from Earth,” you’re at the beginning of human history with Satan writing letters to his fellow archangels.
In all Twain captures your interest because his stories are plausible, captivating, and enlightening even when Twain, as he often does, descends into the darkest of humor and the harsh realities of life.
Twain was a genius with words and language, just as Einstein was with mathematics and Van Gogh was with oils and a brush. No other American author – and there have been a lot of good ones since Twain – has been able to equal Twain’s ability to capture regional and idiosyncratic dialects and no American author can equal Twain in wit, humor and irony.
I grew up in northwest Missouri, in St. Joseph, directly opposite Hannibal on the northeast side of the state. We had a lot of history to be proud of in St. Joe, but of course, Hannibal had Mark Twain. I was sixteen before my parents took me and my youngest brother and sisters to Hannibal. I still remember seeing the boyhood home of Twain, a lopsided little clapboard building. I was thrilled to walk up Cardiff Hill and look out over the Mississippi River winding south towards St. Louis and, eventually, the Gulf of Mexico.
About 15 years ago, my wife and I went to Hartford, Connecticut, visiting the home Twain had built there in 1874. It was there that Twain wrote several of his best books, including “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” His house, now a historical site, is flamboyant and ostentatious. Twain, who was born poor and in the “backwoods” of his time, always worked to rise above his humble beginnings. He derided the greed and corruption of the Gilded Age, but somewhat ironically, always chased wealth and fortune.
Yet, his writings – and this is what I admire about him most – expose the human conditions of pride, prejudice, despair and hypocrisy without being preachy or pedantic. He used an uncultivated teenager to expose our worst prejudice, and even though each of his works are bounded by time, all of them are timeless.
Yo-Yo Ma and I have had a love-hate relationship all our lives.
I have loved him because he’s such a wonderful person and genius, but sometimes – and I won’t say it’s exactly hate that I harbor for him though I used the term earlier – but I find I am exasperated at him because of how perfect he is.
We were born three years apart, he the younger; yet at five, he was playing three different musical instruments and settling on the cello as his instrument of choice. I was still wetting the bed, occasionally.
At seven, he was a virtuoso playing with Aaron Copland and before President John F. Kennedy. I was in second grade, having started school a year early, but not because I was a child prodigy, but because my mother wanted me out of the house and out of her hair.
He was the cutest of children, adorable and lovable. I was, well, I was a kid that when people saw me, they said to my mother, “Hmmm, you ought to be pleased he’s healthy.”As a young man, he traveled the world over seeing everything there was to see. I was seventeen before I left my home state and traveled to Colorado.
In his mid-forties, he was setting up a non-profit organization, the Silk Road Project, that used music to encourage multicultural interaction, understanding, and collaboration. I was just settling into a profession after years of indecision and jumping from one thing to another.
Yo-Yo Ma was selected to be an ambassador of peace by the United Nations and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Hmmm, let me see what medals have I been awarded: NONE.
This guy has memorized hundreds of pieces of music and plays them flawlessly. I can’t sit down at the piano and play one verse of “Jingle Bells” without looking at the music and hitting half a dozen wrong notes.
The only thing Yo-Yo Ma and I have in common is that we both have had only one wife. He and his wife have been married 42 years, my wife and I for 44 years. My marriage has lasted because of my wife’s enduring long-suffering, but I’m sure Yo-Yo Ma’s marriage’s longevity has much to do with his calm and patient disposition.
That’s the real trait of Ma’s that I envy: his even and humble temperament, his engaging personality. Anytime I have seen him interacting with other musicians he is gracious towards them, and they are always complimentary of his friendship and collaboration. Everybody loves Yo-Yo Ma; no one has anything bad to say about him.
I think, no, I am positive, the world would be a better place if we were all more like Yo-Yo Ma. He draws attention without demanding it; he yields to others with selflessness. He plays the lead without being a showoff, and he accompanies with the same intensity and humility as he plays the lead.
My favorite superhero as I was growing up was a real person, Roberto Clemente.The guy was a superhero, a superstar for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
I suppose I liked him because he played the same position I played, right field, although I played right field in Little League because that’s where they stuck kids who weren’t the best players. But in the major leagues that’s where they put the guy who has the strongest arm, an arm strong enough to throw to third base, the farthest distance a fielder has to throw to keep a runner from getting into scoring position.
Clemente had a rocket arm.
I never saw him in person, only when Pirate games were televised. Once, Clemente uncorked a throw from the deepest part of right field in St. Louis to third base. The ball got away from him and sailed high over third base, over foul territory and a dozen rows in the stands. Few major leaguers had an arm that strong, and that error was an oddity. Usually, Clemente got his man. In 18 major league seasons, Clemente won 12 Gold Gloves. He could hit too. He won four National League batting titles and is one of only 32 Major League Baseball players to attain 3,000 hits in their careers.
Critics talked about the things Clemente did wrong at the plate: He swung with only his wrists, his body bailed out of the box, he reached for bad pitches, he was off balance – but he defied the norms. He hit for average and power.
I heard of Clemente first during the 1960 World Series when the Pirates magically beat the powerful New York Yankees. The hero of the series was the Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski, who hit a seventh-game, down-to-the-last-out, series-winning home run, but Clemente’s style caught my attention, and thereafter, I followed him daily in the box scores of the local newspaper.
Clemente received criticism too for popularizing the basket catch as he would nonchalantly let the ball drop into his waist-high-held open glove. Commentators called him a showboat, and they called him a complainer because playing for the Pirates, Clemente decried the attention players on other clubs, such as the Yankees and Dodgers, received.
He had reason to complain. He was overlooked for other reasons too. He was black and Puerto Rican, and his English carried a strong accent. He played when prejudice was strong toward foreign players moving into American baseball.
But Clemente never forgot where he came from.
He played winter ball in Latin America, too, not because he wanted to show off, but because his “hometown” fans wanted to see him play. He held free baseball clinics and delivered food to underprivileged children in Puerto Rican neighborhoods. Then in 1972, he died in a crash on a plane he chartered to deliver aid to victims of a Nicaraguan earthquake.
Clemente was more than a baseball player. He was a superhero.
Whenever I have seen E.O. Wilson on television programs, I have thought, “Man, I would have loved to have this guy as a grandfather.”
But he has been so much more to the world: an eminent biologist who asks questions few people have the curiosity to ask and the intelligence and stamina to answer, a thinker and philosopher, and a voice of reason and morality.
He has done those things with grace, humility, and civility, which is why I always thought he would make a fabulous grandfather, sort of like the TV grandfather Will Geer played on “The Waltons.” At my side, he also would have been someone who would explain all my questions about nature and explain them with patience and respect even if my questions seemed backward, which would have been most of the time.
Wilson’s life had a difficult start. His parents divorced, he and his father and stepmother moved several times, and he was blinded in his right eye in an accident.
Wilson made the most of the hardships, though, even at a young age. The accident left him without stereoscopic vision, but he had exceptional sight in his left eye. While he couldn’t play the games and do things other children did, he developed an interest in things he could see well, the “little things,” ants and other insects.
Wilson determined during his teenage years to become an entomologist, and he began documenting the ants of Alabama. On one of his surveys, he discovered the first colony of fire ants in the United States in Mobile. By the mid-1950s, Wilson graduated from the University of Alabama and moved on to Harvard, becoming a myrmecologist, an ant specialist. He traveled the world collecting ant species and earned his doctorate.
Wilson was not a solitary researcher, however. One of his most amazing character traits was his ability to work with others. He pioneered, with other researchers, new biological theories and studies. A couple of the most important were the development of sociobiology and the discovery of ant communication controlled by chemical means. Those ideas seem intuitive and normal now, but not when he approached them.
Like anyone, Wilson has had his detractors. Mostly, Wilson has been criticized for his criticism of religion. A humanist, Wilson has been harsh on religious beliefs, but he has also recognized the power of religion and made overtures for the best of science and religion to collaborate.
Wilson has written more than two dozen books on a number of scientific themes, from his interest of ants to the question of human existence and human responsibility in the natural world. Even in his nineties, Wilson continues to contribute to science, publishing his latest book in 2019.
I’ve read several of Wilson’s works, and his writings only confirm what I’ve seen of Wilson on scientific television programs. He is a remarkable person, intelligent but able when needed to convey his thoughts even to those who are outside of scientific research or study.
He is a person worth emulating, and even as a grandfather now, I still think how nice it would be to have E.O. Wilson for a grandfather.