1. For Black History Month today, I watched Episodes 4-5 of Roots: The Next Generation.
I usually choke up when I watch the end of Episode 4, in which Will Palmer holds up his new grandson, Alex Haley, to the moon, as his wife Cynthia says to her daughter Bertha after telling her the story of Kunta Kinte: “Moon, this here is the seventh generation from then. This here is Alex Haley. You watch over him!” After ten episodes, we’ve finally arrived at the author of Roots!
Alex’s mother, Bertha, often intrigued me, and I can’t really pinpoint why. As a young woman of college age, she was like the belle of the ball, and she was rather oblivious to the harsh realities of racial discrimination. When the Jewish owner of the dress-shop delivers her dress to her after the KKK had burned down his business, she prances around like a peacock, bragging about how pretty she is. And most of her classmates at the black college she attends are just like her. Simon Haley was the only student who thought about the problems of African-Americans, and many of his fellow students made fun of him because he was the poor son of a sharecropper. Bertha and many of her fellow students were part of a new generation of African-Americans, whose parents owned businesses and who didn’t think much about racial discrimination.
But, for some reason, when she started to see it, she wasn’t really phased by it. When Simon Haley calls himself a “nigger,” Bertha tells him never to use the white man’s name for himself. He’s colored, as is she. She also says that she listened to the stories of her parents and grandparents about Kunta Kinte, and they stuck with her, even when she made fun of them in her youth. She didn’t make a big deal about racism, even when she was older. She knew who she was, and she went about living her life and taking care of her family.
A touching part of Episode 5 is when she tells her husband, Simon, to tend to his work, even though (unbeknownst to him) she’s desperately sick and needs attention. Simon has a degree in agriculture, and he’s trying to help a poor black sharecropper, Ab Decker (played by Brock Peters), to get his government subsidy, when the white owner of the property is laying claim to it. When Alex tells his mom that she’s sick and needs her husband’s attention, she replies that few people in their lifetimes have something important to do, so when someone like Simon does, he should see it through to the end. I’ve often seen that statement as a reflection of her growth from the oblivious, narcissistic belle of the ball that she was in previous episodes, and, in a sense, it is. But, in a sense, she’s also the same Bertha that she was throughout Episodes 2-5. That statement was probably the closest she ever got to reflection about the world around her—except for her statement to Simon that he shouldn’t use the white man’s derogatory name for himself. Most of the time, she was interested in her family, and she loved her husband, Simon, even if she didn’t fully understand what he was doing. I don’t mean to badmouth Bertha, for I was sad when she died on Episode 5, and at such a young age. I’m just struggling to understand her as a character.
Another character who intrigues me is Congressman Andy Warner, played by Marc Singer, of V fame. Congressman Warner is a racist, yet he’s still friendly with the African-Americans of his town, probably because they’re a part of his community and he wants to preserve “good relations” between the races. He ran against his father, Colonel Warner, by attempting to be more of a racist and a redneck than his father was. But he came to embrace the sophisticated bigotry of his father—the type that isn’t so hot-headed and that reaches out to blacks in some capacity, but which still keeps blacks down and nods at white violence against them every now and then. He changed from the rash, womanizing ways of his youth once he arrived at a position of status within his community. As with Bertha, Andy Warner’s a character I stuggle to understand.
In terms of the theme that I’ve discussed in past posts—that of appeasing the white man versus seeking freedom (see Roots TNG 2-3, Collins on Enoch, Psalm to the Real Solomon, Yada, Tabula Rasa (Sort Of), Lent), Paul Winfield’s character stands out to me. Paul Winfield heads the black college where Simon Haley teaches, and he sings spirituals to please the white donors. Simon views that as grovelling to white people. When the white landowner is upset at Simon’s attempt to get Ab his government subsidy and threatens to take action against the college, Paul Winfield tells Simon that he’s gone too far. “Why don’t you sing him your favorite spiritual?”, Simon sarcastically asks, and Paul Winfield replies that he would, if that would save the college. I think the difference between now (in the series) and slavery days is that, now, black people are appeasing whites in order to pursue freedom, which education can provide. Many of us have to kiss the feet of people we don’t like in order to do what we want, or at least to attain some measure of freedom. At least the appeasement now is a path to somewhere, not nowhere (continued slavery). Battles may still be necessary, but the question people may find themselves asking is, “Is it worth it?” For Paul Winfield, Simon was fighting a battle that he could not win, jeopardizing the future of African-Americans in the process.
Another note: Robert Culp, whom I know from the Greatest American Hero and as Debra’s dad on Everybody Loves Raymond, plays Mr. Pettyjohn on Episode 5. That didn’t stand out to me when I last saw Episode 5 because I hadn’t watched those shows that much up to that time. It’s amazing what you can notice after a year, based on what you’ve seen and heard!
Tomorrow, I won’t be writing about a black history movie, for I’ll be at the public library. But I’m planning to read some encyclopedia articles on Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. Believe it or not, I haven’t read the World Book Encyclopedia since I was a lad! Doing so tomorrow will bring back memories of elementary school!
2. In Ancient Israelite Religion, I read Roland Murphy’s “Religious Dimensions of Israelite Wisdom.” On page 450, Murphy states that, in wisdom literature, “As regards ‘retribution’ specifically, God is not directly at work in the reward/punishment events of life[;] [r]ather, the deity is a kind of midwife who watches over the mechanical correspondence that is perceived to exist between an action and its consequence.”
That may work with many things that I read in Proverbs. If a person is lazy and won’t work, then he’ll go hungry. If a man messes around with somebody else’s wife, then there’s a chance that he’ll have to deal with a jealous husband, and that could be fatal. Proverbs also teaches people how to act appropriately so they can advance in life. In these cases, God isn’t really rewarding and punishing behavior, but behavior has good or bad consequences.
But does that always work in Proverbs? I think of the proverbs that say that a man who gives to the poor will be blessed, whereas the stingy or oppressive person will suffer want. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily true apart from divine intervention in the course of human events.
But this brings me to a point that Murphy makes on page 457, where he discusses the Egyptian concept of maat, which may underlie aspects of Israelite wisdom ideology. Murphy quotes S. Morenz’s view that maat “is the correct situation or harmony established in creation between nature and society, out of which flows justice, truth, etc.” Is this saying that nature benefits us when we do good, and hurts us when we do bad? In Egyptian wisdom ideology, is this due to direct divine intervention, or simply to the way that a god made the cosmos?
3. In Psalms II: 51-100, I read Mitchell Dahood’s comments on Psalm 93. Ugaritic literature had a story in which the storm-god, Baal, defeats the chaotic sea, Yam, whom the high god El sent to keep Baal in line (see Alexander Haig, Color Purple, Randy Nations, I Kings 15). Once Baal won, he needed a celestial palace to “fully exercise his royal powers” (343). In Psalm 93, Dahood sees some of the same themes, only Yahweh subordinates the storms and the sea and occupies a heavenly palace. In verse 1, the name of Yahweh occurs before the verb for “reigns,” whereas, ordinarily in Hebrew, the subject comes after the verb. Dahood says that the Psalmist is placing the subject, YHWH, first to emphasize that “Yahweh, and no other deity, exercises kingship” (340).
4. On page 195 of Narrative History and Ethnic Boundaries, Theodore Mullen’s talking about the story in I Samuel 4-6, in which the Philistines take Israel’s ark of the covenant and place it beside their god Dagon. The ark causes the statue of Dagon to fall down and to break, so the Philistines decide to return the ark to the Israelites. They make golden tumors and mice. Mullen states:
On one level, most certainly, the tumor images are symbols of the “one plague” that was on all the Israelites. On another, the Philistines have chosen to represent themselves and their cities as nothing other than “anal dwellings.” The inclusion of the images of the mice, symbols of all that belonged to the Philistine rulers, represented the people of Philistia as pestilence-carrying rodents which were, in Israelite terms, ritually unclean (Lev 11:29).
There’s a debate within Christianity about self-esteem. Should we see ourselves as vile creatures to appease God and receive his mercy, or should we affirm ourselves? Can we do both at once? According to Rachel Held Evans’ post, Lent, Depravity, and Why Hyper-Calvinism Has It Backwards, ‘the true ugliness of our depravity lies not in the fact that we have offended a God who hates us, but in the fact that we have offended a God who desperately and relentlessly loves us.” Of course, I don’t think that the Philistines truly saw themselves as “pestilence-carrying-rodents,” morally-speaking, for they weren’t seeking a relationship with the Israelite God. They just wanted to appease him through their humility so that he’d stop afflicting them. Their repentance wasn’t genuine. But at least they were humbled, as they realized that the Israelite God had the power to strike them with disease. That should lead them to at least see themselves as not-God and to be kinder and humbler in their relationship with others. But they returned to their oppressive ways after the plague had passed. Fear religion can sometimes keep people in line, but love is what draws them into a relationship with God.
5. In John Denton’s The Middle Platonists, I like Denton’s quote of Alexander Polyhistor (first century B.C.E.) on page 342, since it’s a good summary of Pythagorean doctrine on the origin of the cosmos. Denton discusses this in the first chapter of the book, but his quote on page 342 brings all that information into one place:
The principle of all things is the Monad; from this Monad there comes into existence the Indefinite Dyad as matter for the Monad, which is cause…From the Monad and the Indefinite Dyad arise the numbers; from numbers, points; from these, lines; from these, plane figures; from plane figures, solids; from solid figures there arise sensible bodies, the elements of which are four, fire, water, earth and air. These elements interchange and turn into one another completely and combine to produce a cosmos animate, intelligent, and spherical, with the earth at its center, the earth itself too being spherical and inhabited round about.
So the numbers and shapes we learned about in geometry led to the cosmos as it exists today, according to the Pythagoreans.