Category Archives: history

The Prophecy of the Talking Heads

Movie Poster for True Stories

I don’t reread books. But, I do rewatch movies. I have about ten or so that I sink into when I need a break from the world.

Yesterday, I ended up with True Stories, David Byrne’s 1986 satire of small town life with the soundtrack mostly written by Byrne and performed by his band The Talking Heads and various cast members. Once again, I was reminded that, within his satire, Byrne mostly got the future right, from sprawling suburbs to burgeoning conspiracy theories to emptying downtowns. At its heart, the film is the story of human beings struggling to maintain some semblance of control in an increasingly chaotic world.

As with most prophecies, we don’t always understand them at the time. I remember loving the movie and the music but missing the larger message when I first saw it on the big screen all those years ago. At the time, I was living in Los Angeles and going to graduate school at UCLA, and there were plenty of examples of Byrne’s vision for Virgil, Texas, already coming true throughout California. But, in 1986, I think the sense of the power of progress outweighed the potential downsides presented by the doomsayers.

My modern literature professor at the time made a comment that has stuck with me. He observed that modern and contemporary writers often lament the loss of innocence and fundamental disconnect from natures that seem to come with progress. He went on to comment that he had trouble helping his undergraduates understand this point of view. After all, living in the concrete sprawl of Los Angeles, they saw parking lots not as eyesores but as a place to park their sports cars.

If you haven’t ever watched True Stories, it is available at various streaming outlets. Two clips, in particular, show Byrne’s prescience. One features the “perfect” family of the CEO of Varicorp, the town’s computer manufacturer. The parents do not speak directly to each other, instead using their son and daughter to communicate. In the clip, the CEO played by Spalding Gray, uses the dinner table to envision the new world order:

The second clip features John Ingle as an evangelical preacher with a brief appearance of Jo Harvey Allen, simply known as the lying woman. We wade into the world of religious prophecy and conspiracy theory, underscored by the Talking Heads’ song, “Puzzlin’ Evidence”. (I can’t embed so click the song title to access.)

These two clips give a good idea of the tone of the film and I hope they entice you to watch the whole thing. According to Wikipedia (although it needs a citation), the film was not commercially successful but has become a cult classic.

Historical Hypocrisy, Part Two

I saw a comment on Twitter the other day in reference to the murder of Auhmad Arbery that referenced this rising from the roots of slavery in the South.

In his detailed history of the first battles of the Revolutionary War, Nathaniel Philbrick takes the time to include details that might not have been widely reviewed in our history classes and should make smug northern people more than a little uncomfortable. These include the basic hypocrisy at the foundation of the revolution.

At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which boldly proclaimed that all men are created equal, one in five Boston families owned slaves. In fact, as the provincial soldiers (Philbrick rarely calls them patriots) headed to Bunker Hill, they passed through the Charlestown common past the place where “Mark was hung in chains.” Philbrick describes this gruesome landmark:

In 1755 the slave Mark had been executed for conspiring to poison his abusive master. Whereas his female accomplice had been burned to death, Mark had been hanged; his body was then stuffed into an iron cage that was suspended from a chain at the edge of the Charlestown Common, where the corpse was left to rot and be picked apart by birds.

The site was well-known, according to Philbrick, and he reminds us:

Slavery was more than a rhetorical construct for the city’s white residents; it was an impossible-to-ignore reality in a community where African men, women, and children regularly bought and sold and where anyone taking the road into or out of nearby Charlestown had no choice but to remember what had happened in 1755 when a black man threatened to overthrow his oppressor.

Finally, for those who may be thinking, but this is before Northern states outlawed slavery. I will end with a more contemporary example that occurred in Pennsylvania, the state formed by Quakers in support of religious freedom. My first teaching position was in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, a steel mill town about an hour west of Philadelphia. The division was quite diverse with African Americans from the city and whites coming in from the more rural county. New teachers were offered a bus tour of the division to help understand its dynamics.

First stop? The local hospital on the hill where, in 1911, Zachariah Walker, an African American mill worker was taken after an altercation with a Edgar Rice, a white local law enforcement officer, that left Rice dead and Walker with a gunshot wound. A mob came together and pulled Walker, still chained to his bed, from the hospital and threw him on a hastily created fire. As the fire melted the chains, Walker crawled from the fire and was thrown back at least two or three times until he died, surrounded by a huge crowd of white men, women and children cheering on his death. According to my tour guide, Rand McNally took Coatesville off the map for some time in response to this horrific event.

I lived down the hill from the hospital in the late 1980s. It was only in 2006 that a historical marker was erected. But, Coatesville carries the history in its soul as the 100th anniversary showed. 


Historical Hypocrisy

Some American history writers seem unwilling to take on the racist, violent events and attitudes of our shared past. Unless the topic directly relates to the atrocities and the people impacted by them, the writers either ignore them or pay some kind of lip service. I think we can celebrate ingenuity and innovation without sacrificing the often pretty terrible truth about how America became and continues to become the country it is.

Philbrick takes time out from recounting the first battles of the Revolutionary War to point out the essential hypocrisy and single minded fanaticism of the colonists. Long after the war was over, one of the militiamen stated his reason for fighting very simply: “We always had been free, and we meant to be free always” (p. 121). Philbrick does not let that statement simply go by without comment:

But to say that a love of democratic ideals had inspired these country people to take up arms against the regular is to misrepresent the reality of the revolutionary movement. Freedom was for these militiamen a very relative term. As for their Puritan ancestors, it applied only to those who were just like them. Enslaved African Americans, Indians, women, Catholics, and especially British loyalists were not worthy of the same freedoms they enjoyed. It did not seem a contradiction to these men that standing among them that night was the thirty-four-year-old enslaved African American Prince Estabrook, owned by town selectman and justice of the peace Benjamin Estabrook (p. 121).

He goes on to describe the sometimes brutal suppression of loyalists in Massachusetts. Tar and feathering was a popular punishment, and early in the book, Philbrick describes one such attack with excruciating detail so we understand the horror. Later, he only has to mention that it was administered to make my skin crawl.

I remember when, during her husband’s first Presidential campaign, Michelle Obama made a comment about being really proud of her country for the first time. Not surprisingly, she was widely criticized. But from its beginnings, the country that emphasized freedom for all not only left lots of people out, but did so in horrible, dehumanizing ways.

It is not without a touch of irony that Philbrick ends the section about the small battle in Lexington in which Prince Estabrook took part by describing the aftermath:

Besides Pitcairn’s twice-wounded horse and two soldiers who had received minor injuries, all the casualties had been sufferwd by the provincials, with eight dead and ten wounded, included Prince Estabrook, who became the first African American casualty of the Revo;ution since the death of the black sailor Crispus Attacks at the Boston Massacre (p. 128).


Parallels in History

Thoughts about reading Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

Disclaimer: I am not a trained historian nor a Constitutional scholar. I know a bit about American history, mostly from the perspective of writers and filmmakers like Ken Burns, David McCullough, and Nathaniel Philbrick. They are, first and foremost, storytellers, providing context as needed but always putting the people first. I like reading history because there are often parallels with our own time, despite differences in cultures, countries, and ideologies.

For example, in Bunker Hill, Nathaniel Philbrick takes a detailed look at the battle that began the Revolutionary War. He begins with the Boston Tea Party with flashbacks to the Boston Massacre. He tells the story of patriots and loyalists centered on the city of Boston. In the preface, he describes Boston as “the true hero of the story.”

Bostonians, according to Philbrick, had a sense of themselves as an “autonomous enclave” that did not have to follow dictates from England, a feeling that originated with the first Puritan settlers in 1630.  During King Phillips’ War in 1676, John Leverett, the governor of Massachusetts, essentially declared independence to a British agent, saying the King could enlarge their liberties but not retract them. Philbrick writes, “A hundred years before the Declaration of Independence, the governor of Massachusetts boldly insisted that the laws enacted by the colony’s legislature superseded those of even Parliament” (p. 5).

Does that sound familiar? Substitute the federal government for Parliament, and we are suddenly firmly in 2020 as the federal and state governments debate their relationships in terms of the pandemic. This article about the possibility of the Department of Justice supporting legal action against state governors whose stay-at-home orders seem excessive shows the conflict between the federal and state governments. And states have to work with their counties. It is these kinds of conflicts that led to the Civil War.

How do we help students see these connections? How does this become the curriculum?





Randomly Connected Threads

Sometimes there is a bit of serendipity in my reading and learning. This morning, Tim Stahmer’s post about data mining became a catalyst for that serendipity. He used this photo of the Hope-Katy Mine in Basin, Montana from Wikimedia Commons as a metaphor and mentioned not knowing what might have been mined there. With my new found interest in US geology ala John McPhee, Mine entranceI went out to look and discovered it was gold and silver as they were the two most valuable ores found in the area.

The rich veins formed after molten rock came to the surface, turned into granite that cracked as it cooled, which allowed for the gold and silver to fill in. And all this happened some 81 to 74 million years ago. Geological history is a bit overwhelming at best.

More recent history in the West also fascinates me. The history of Basin, Montana, is one that repeated itself in towns across the West as miners and companies came and went, got out all but the impossible ore, and moved on, creating waves of boom and bust. But, Basin has reinvented itself somewhat as a health town, encouraging people to descend into the Merry Widow Health Mine to inhale radon and drink the pure spring water to cure a whole host of ailments.

In addition to McPhee, my 2020 reading included Tim Egan’s The Big Burn, his history of the 1910 wildfire that burned large sections of Idaho and Montana, destroying several railroad towns. Firefighters fought a losing battle but stories of heroism were born. And here is where this thread connects to the last: a US Forest Service ranger Ed Pulaski saved most of his crew by escaping into an abandoned mine, near Wallace, Idaho, which was partially destroyed in the fire.

Earlier, in the late 1800s, Wallace had been the site of a union strike that led to the wider Coeur d’Alene labor strike. And that ends this journey with my current read: The Women of the Copper Country, which tells the fictionalized story of Anna Clemenc and her labor activism during the Copper County, Michigan, strike in 1913 – 1914.

Geology, history, literature, biography: all these threads come together around the stories of the landscape and its people.