Thursday, June 18, 2015

Margaret Walker's Century

The other week I drove from DC to the coast of Connecticut to join a panel at the Poetry by the Sea conference honoring African American poet and novelist Margaret Walker, whose works include the award-winning poem For My People (1942) and the novel Jubilee (1966), based on the story of her great-grandmother during the slavery era. I learned about Walker while researching the book and documentary Soul of a People.
    This year marks the centennial of Walker’s birth, and Jackson State University, where she nurtured generations of writers for decades, has organized a slate of events to celebrate. Hopefully the world will know Walker’s vital work much better as a result.
    I thank my friends at Turner Publishing for posting my piece Young People Finding a Passion for Expression about Walker and her surprising formative years as a young woman working with other writers in a depressed Chicago during the late 1930s. Read the post here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Earth Day, Arbor Day and Where Nature Meets National Security

Seventy years ago outside the soaring stone Louisiana capitol building in Baton Rouge, the governor gave an Arbor Day speech that linked planting a tree with securing liberty. Then he put his foot to a shovel to make it happen. What was that tree that would protect the American people? The cork oak!
    Little-known fact: at the middle of the 20th century the United States imported nearly half the world’s cork. It was crucial (as an insulator) for the defense industry’s wartime production of planes, ships and equipment. For years during World War II and after, Arbor Day celebrations across the U.S. featured governors and other officials intoning to live and radio audiences how citizens could help keep America free by planting a cork oak. In response, 4-H groups, boy scouts and garden clubs requested the seedlings and planted trees to do their patriotic duty.
    So for Arbor Day and its successor Earth Day, here’s a reprise of the quixotic tale of the wartime campaign to save the U.S. from Fascism by growing cork oaks across America! Thanks to Chesapeake Bay magazine for publishing this first installment of an elaborate tale of nature and national security.
    And thanks to All Things Considered for airing another slant on the story.
    Digging deeper, I have been intrigued to find more about how cork – that elusive substance of desire and wine stoppers native to the Mediterranean – was a big deal in the mid-1900s. Companies like Crown Cork and Seal and Armstrong Cork – both still going today in different forms – found their work with Nature's cork entailed unnatural geopolitics. What began as a simple trade in bark and bottle caps snowballed into an elaborate global drama, bringing along sabotage, espionage, and…
    More to come. Do you have a cork oak story of your own? Let me know.
    Happy Earth Day!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Experience America, Experience Mingering Mike

The Experience America exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum blends, with a fresh eye, pieces from the museum’s permanent collections – including a number of stars from the Federal Works of Art Program exhibit of a few years ago, featured in my Smithsonian piece. Others come from private collections. Together these paintings help break down the silos separating images from the 1930s and '40s and portray America and American realism in a new light. It’s a refreshing and inviting exhibit.

Upstairs, the rooms devoted to Mingering Mike’s Supersonic Greatest Hits reveal a new form of outsider art: the LP oeuvre of a recording artist who never released a disc. The album covers track the career of a soul star from DC's streets, Mingering Mike. His vision comes complete with liner notes, lyrics and cardboard records hand-painted with grooves suggesting hi-fi tunes the appropriate length. You can also see his platinum hits. The exhibit is a fascinating little gem. There’s a fun piece about the artist on Studio 360.

Enjoy them both.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A WWII Veteran Reflects on a Path Not Taken

For Veterans Day, the Baltimore Sun shares today the story that East Baltimore resident Frank DiCara told me about his experience during World War II and coming back.
    Born into a family of six in the hardscrabble Highlandtown neighborhood, DiCara faced a tough road: By 1944 his three older brothers had all been drafted into the service, and he got his own draft notice just before Christmas that year. He was shipped off to the Philippines with all the other 18-year-old boys.
    After surviving the war's ordeal, he faced more trials coming home. But a chance encounter changed his story and his life. What if he had missed that sidewalk meeting? he wonders. Thanks to the Sun for running the piece.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Aboard the Doomed Macedonian Again

Last weekend marked the anniversary of one of the first encounters in the War of 1812, the battle between the U.S.S. United States and H.M.S. Macedonian. In researching our National Geographic book, Mark and I found some stories that surprised us, and one involved the wager of a beaver hat and lightning striking twice.
    Stephen Decatur was commander of the Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia, before the war. There he would invite his British counterparts in port over for dinner. In January 1812 one of his guests was Captain John Carden, who commanded the H.M.S. Macedonian. That night over dinner, Decatur bet Carden a fine beaver hat that his ship, the United States, could best the Macedonian one-on-one. It was almost a joke: Decatur’s ship was nicknamed “the Old Wagon,” while the Macedonian, with 38 guns, was new and nimble.
    They laughed, toasted and parted that night, expecting nothing to come of it.
    Within months, everything had changed. That fall when Decatur, after crossing the Atlantic, bore down on a British ship, the other ship turned out to be none other than the Macedonian.
The Macedonian and the United States
    It was Sunday, October 25. West of the Canary Islands. Confident in the Macedonian’s speed, Carden sailed straight at his opponent. And indeed, she sped past the United States' first shot. But Decatur used his position and the longer range of the U.S. guns (24-pounders compared to the British 18-pounders) to stay out of cannon range and dismast the Macedonian. Then he swooped in to finish the job.
    At that point we shift perspective to the British ship, where a boy named Samuel Leech, a powder monkey, quickly saw how brutal a sea battle could be. When the Macedonian’s crew had left Portsmouth heading for the Mediterranean, they didn’t even know that Britain was at war with the U.S. Suddenly they were in battle. My blog for NY Bound Books sometime ago takes up Leech’s tale.
    It’s a tale that takes a young man through war to another land, another life, and a sudden jarring return to his old ship during a visit to New York, like a bad flashback. Rattled and moved, Leech was inspired to write his life story, Thirty Years from Home. His book came out in the 1840s and became a surprise bestseller. It still offers a remarkable firsthand glimpse from that time of life and death and second chances.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Baltimore Short Fiction

Happy to have my review of two fine Baltimore writers in the Washington Independent Review of Books. Rafael Alvarez and Clarinda Harriss share a fascination with their city’s residents, how people use language, and the random social encounters that cut across ethnicity and class. It’s fun to imagine the two authors, who both have new short story collections out, meeting for drinks and hashing things out in a Baltimore bar (though probably not one in the Inner Harbor).

Read the review on the Review's website.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Empires of the Silk Road

My new guest post on National Geographic's Intelligent Travel blog is about my trip to Kyrgyzstan, and stories of empires and herders that met in Central Asia along the Silk Road. It was a wild trip through the mountains - I hope you enjoy the read!
Please let me know what you think and post a comment on the Nat Geo site or here.