15th Amendment

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Today is the anniversary of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, the amendment securing the right of black males to vote, though the word black is not mentioned in the amendment itself.

During Reconstruction, the period right after the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment granting citizenship to all who are born here were ratified. Though the Reconstruction Acts passed by the Radical Republicans in 1867 required confederate states to include black male suffrage in their reconstituted constitutions, the majority of northern states still continued to deny blacks the right to vote. This hypocrisy truly riled the white south.

In 1867, the Republicans’ once large lead over the white supremacist Democratic party was shrinking, threatening a loss of their control of congress. The Republicans felt if they could make sure that blacks could vote in all the states, their hold on power would be maintained, especially since blacks would more than likely support the party that fought for their rights and especially their suffrage. However, many northern whites were against blacks voting in the north, several states actually passing laws against it. In May 1868, at the Republican convention, Ulysses S. Grant was nominated as president of the United States. It was decided that the party platform would continue to require southern states to allow black suffrage, but it would be left up to the northern states to decide for themselves whether blacks should vote or not.

Grant, though very popular, won the presidency by a very small margin which meant to Republican leaders that black suffrage was essential to their maintaining majorities in both houses of Congress. At the beginning of 1869, the Republicans with a majority in a lame duck congress, introduced the Fifteenth Amendment after several months of debate and revision.

Section 1: The right of citizens of the United States vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Three-quarters of the states, 28, of the 37 states were needed for ratification. Since the 11 southern states were run by Republican Reconstruction governments, the Republicans were assured of ratification there. 17 border, western, and northern states complied in support of the amendment, with Georgia being the 28th state to ratify in February of 1870.

Jubilation over ratification was, of course, short-lived. In the south, violent groups like the KKK intimidated blacks who voted, their homes burnt, their families hurt or killed. Literacy tests, not given to white voters, were employed as well as poll taxes and grandfather clauses instituted. In Mississippi in 1867, 67% of the black male population was registered to vote, by 1892, only 4%. It wasn’t until 1965 that the Fifteenth Amendment would truly be enforced through the Voting Rights Act.

This anniversary is yet another reminder about the commitment on the ground needed to ensure civil rights. Any laws can exist, but such laws are powerless without the vigilance required to enforce them. It’s also a reminder that understanding the motivations for the support of civil rights is not always simple, straight forward, or pure.

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Looney Tunes’ chase in the Louvre

Being chased by Elmer Fudd, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck escape into paintings in the Louvre Museum, from Looney Tunes: Back in Action 2003.

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From uniform to pulp/ Battlefield to workshop/ Warrior to artist

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In the Lobby at Harris Theater last Friday, just before the theater was open for seating for the World Premier of My Lai, a table was set up displaying hand-made paper, some of which had been stencil-printed. It turns out the man behind the table, Drew Cameron, was hired by the composer of My Lai, Jonathan Berger, as a creative consultant. Cameron is an Iraq war veteran and is one of the founders of the Combat Paper Project.

Cameron takes military uniforms, cuts them, pulps them, and turns them into paper. This  project is designed as an outreach to vets and has spread to many sites throughout the states. Cameron said in 2007, “The story of the fiber, the blood, sweat and tears, the months of hardship and brutal violence are held within those old uniforms. The uniforms often become inhabitants of closets or boxes in the attic. Reshaping that association of subordination, of warfare and service, into something collective and beautiful is our inspiration.”

The green paper in front of us on the table was made from military uniforms worn in the Vietnam War. The whitish paper was from Iraq/Afghanistan American military uniforms. The stenciled image on the green paper was based on the Vietnamese musical instrument called the Trung (see above), which is a kind of xylophone made out of sharpened bamboo sticks. This was one of the instruments so beautifully played by Van-Anh Vanessa Vo in the performance of the opera we were about to see. During the Vietnam War these Trung were used by the Viet Cong to cover traps and holes.

We wanted to purchase one of the stenciled prints and were told the cost was $50. A short man came up to the table and asked Cameron how much the unstenciled sheet of paper was.

“Fifty dollars,” he said.

“But there is no image on it.”

“It’s still fifty dollars.”

“It’s blank. It’s still fifty dollars?”

“Yes. It’s a portrait. Get it?” And then he turned to us. “Get it?”

The short man continued, “Fifty dollars with nothing on it?”

“It’s a portrait.”

“What?”

“It’s somebody’s uniform. A lot of experiences in that uniform. It’s a portrait of someone.”

Transformation is offered to participants on the Combat Paper’s website:

From uniform to pulp
Battlefield to workshop
Warrior to artist

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My mother calls to tell me I have cancer

IMG_0014My 88 year old mother called me about 10:00 yesterday morning, from the assisted living facility she is in.

xxx“Did you go to the doctor?” she said.

xxx“For what I answered. My cold is over. No more xxxcoughing.”

xxx“You know why. What did the doctor say?”

xxx“I don’t know why.  What are you talking about?”

xxx“Wait let me turn the TV down.”

xxx“What are you talking about?”

xxx“That you have cancer.”

xxx“What? Mom, I don’t have cancer. I had a cold.”

xxx“You are just saying this so you won’t hurt me.”

xxx“Well, I don’t want to hurt you, but I would always be honest with you. I think you were xxxhaving a dream.”

xxx“I found out last night at 3 or 4 in the morning that you have cancer.”

xxx“Mom, you probably woke up from a dream. How do you find something out at 3 or 4 xxxin the morning anyway?”

xxx“That’s when I found out. They told me.”

xxx“Who told you?”

xxx“The letter. The letter that said you better get to the doctor as soon as possible. The xxxletter that said the test didn’t look good.”

xxx“I didn’t get any letter.”

xxx“Yes you did. I saw it.”

xxx“Mom, I didn’t get any letter.”

xxx“I’m telling you, we were so upset. What with you retiring, wanting to spend some time xxxwithout having to work. I’m telling you, we were really crying. Your sister couldn’t even xxxspeak.”

xxx“Mom, I’m OK really. It was just a dream.”

xxx“Have you talked to your sister?”

xxx“Not in a couple of days. Mom, really, I’m OK.”

xxx“And you take such good  care of yourself and you eat so well. To have something like this happen is awful. Just awful.”

xxx“Mom, really. I don’t have cancer. You were dreaming.”

xxx“This makes me so sad.”

xxx“Mom, I don’t have cancer.”

xxx“You’re not just saying this?”

xxx“Mom, I would tell you the truth. Honest.”

This conversation went on for at least another 15 minutes.

There is something so very disconcerting about arguing with your mother, a mother who once had incredible power over you, that you don’t have cancer. (A mother who also killed the next door neighbor with a curse she once made.) There is something so unsettling about making a case that you don’t have cancer to a mother who is adamant, stubborn, absolutely convinced that you do. There is something seriously unnerving about trying to convince someone who supposedly loves you, that you are, in fact, not in any imminent health-related danger, when really, who knows what will eventually finish any of us off.

I know my mother’s grip on reality is slipping. I know that her fear for her own death or her fears for her children have manifested in this story she is convinced is true. I know all this and yet it’s really hard for me to shake this phone call off. A small piece of me can’t help but wonder whether it’s a premonition or a curse.

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Once you land, there’s no turning back

Chief Warrant Officer Hugh C. Thompson, a probable witness in the upcoming Calley court martial, 1969. (AP-Photo)

Chief Warrant Officer Hugh C. Thompson (AP-Photo)

Last night JB and I went to the World Premier of My Lai, a monodrama for tenor, string quartet, and Vietnamese instruments, composed by Jonathan Berger. The Kronos Quartet, Rinde Eckert (tenor), and Van-Anh Vanessa Vo (traditional Vietnamese musician) performed to a packed house in Harris Theater. It was an incredibly moving and powerful piece, one and half hours without an intermission. Both JB and I were brought to tears.

My Lai, of course, is the name of the village where the massacre of 504 innocent Vietnamese citizens, mostly women and children (50 who were three years old or younger, 69 between the ages of four and seven) and elders ( 27 in their 70s and 80s) took place by American soldiers on March 16, 1968, during the Vietnam War. (The Vietnamese call this war the American War.) Some claim that it was this event that began to turn the country against this war, that Americans were shocked and horrified at the behavior of our military.

None of us would know about this story at all if it hadn’t been for a warrant officer, Hugh Thompson, who with two other soldiers was flying reconnaissance over the area and spotted the massacre while it was going on and tried to intercede. Thompson was appalled at what he saw and reported the incident by radio many times. He made three unauthorized landings to try to stop the carnage. The first time, he landed near an irrigation ditch filled with the bodies of the villagers. He tried to persuade Lt. Calley, the officer in charge, to stop the fighting and help the villagers who were still alive. He was ordered by Calley to leave and as the helicopter rose, Thompson witnessed Sargent David Mitchell open fire on the dead and wounded in the ditch.

Passionately angry, he landed his helicopter again, this time quite literally between a bunker of Vietnamese civilians and American soldiers. He got out of the helicopter after telling his gunner, Larry Colburn, and crew chief, Glenn Andreotta, to train their guns on any soldiers who attempted to stop him, and was able to bring those villagers out of the bunker where they were hiding, after persuading another helicopter to come and fly these villagers to safety.

On his way to refuel, Andreotta saw movement in the irrigation ditch where they had landed the first time. Thompson landed a third time. Andreotta walked into the ditch and rescued a small five year old boy. Thompson flew the boy to safety with a nun in a hospital/orphanage in Quang Ngai. Back at the base, Thompson reported the incident again, in person, which led finally to the official cease-fire and the ending of the atrocities.

Thompson refused to stay silent about this incident which put the military in an embarrassing situation requiring them to investigate. My Lai was apparently the beginning of a larger operation to rout out Viet Cong and their sympathizers that intended to include 6 other communities. President Nixon and other high military officials at first tried to vilify and court-martial Thomson for disrupting a military operation, but he was never brought to military tribunal. In fact, he stayed in the military for twenty-three years, retiring in 1983.

In 1998 he was finally decorated with Colburn and Andreotta (posthumously) with the Soldier’s Medal at the Vietnam Memorial in DC. According to the U.S.army, “The Soldier’s Medal is awarded to any person of the Armed Forces of the United States or of a friendly foreign nation who, while serving in any capacity with the Army of the United States distinguished himself or herself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.”  Thompson died in 2006 from cancer at the age of 62. It is in his hospital room a few weeks before his death that this opera takes place. We were told by the moderator of a panel after the performance that Larry Colburn was in the audience last night.

On a simple stage, The Kronos Quartet was on our left, Van-Anh Vo to the right with the four types of Vietnamese instruments she used, the musicians separated in the center by a slightly raised platform, where Eckert, playing Thompson a few weeks before his death, sang in a bare hospital room, the white drapes behind him serving as a screen for imagery from the war and abstract imagery of his emotional state. We were told later, after the performance, that Larry Colburn, Thompson’s gunner, was in the audience.

Poignant, provocative, weighty— the legacy of the Vietnam War is still visceral, still emotional, still overwhelming. As we careen toward the third decade of the 21st century, we would do well to remember and embody what bravery and conscience really mean and reveal. As Eckert (as Thompson) sang last night, “Once you land, there’s no turning back.”

 

 

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Rob Cantor

Every Friday at school we have activity period, a time when students can sign up for a wide range of activities sponsored by faculty and staff at school. For years now I have sponsored Short Films where the students and I can share our favorite films from youtube or other sources. This is also a great opportunity for me to learn more about what is more culturally current and hip.

MG introduced all of us in Short Films to Rob Cantor (aka Yellow Tie) videos throughout the year. He is a musician, singer, and song-writer, stepping into the realm of music comedy as well. He was a vocalist and guitarist for the Michigan-based band Tally Hall from 2002-2011. Since then he has worked more exclusively on his viral videos.

“Shia Laboeuf” (above) is probably my favorite, where Rob Cantor narrates a gruesome story of the cannibalistic serial killer Shia Laboeuf. He is accompanied by the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus, the West Los Angeles Children’s Choir, the Argus Quartet, and eight remarkable dancers.

Below is posted a video we watched this afternoon, “All I need is you,” a music video of a song on his most recent album, Not a Trampoline, or “all eye knead 15 you.” Eighth graders love these visual puns.

A great way to transition into the weekend.

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Foner or “ma hand”

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Sometimes, for an 8th grader, late on a Thursday afternoon after a very long review of Reconstruction, drawing “ma hand” is a lot more compelling than reading Eric Foner.

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