June 29, 2017

A Wild & Disobedient Life

Henry David Thoreau, on his 200th birthday, is an American immortal who got there the hard way – against the grain of his town and his times.  By now he’s the heroic non-conformist who modeled ...

Henry David Thoreau, on his 200th birthday, is an American immortal who got there the hard way – against the grain of his town and his times.  By now he’s the heroic non-conformist who modeled his brief life on religious convictions: that every human being has an original relation with divine spirit, and that on earth a man must become a majority of one.  So he made a dissenting record living apart, and walking the woods more like a Native American, he felt, than a Yankee.  Never to church, never married, never voted and didn’t pay his taxes.  He talked to the trees as almost-people, and he caressed the fish in his stream like almost-children. Manly and able “but rarely tender,” he won Emerson’s obituary praise that flatters us, too: “no truer American existed,” Emerson said, than Henry Thoreau.  The prophet of Concord is our subject this hour on Open Source. 

We begin with Thoreau’s bicentennial biographer Laura Dassow Walls, visiting this week from the University of Notre Dame.  There’s news and insight in her book that’s drawing high praise already.  She shares with us how her life first intersected with Thoreau’s:

I was a teenager. I was learning girl culture of 1970 and conformity and trying to figure out how to get along and worried about future and what college to go to what kind of job I could have — what kind of a job could a woman have. And they were limited. So, for instance, secretarial work was still something we were encouraged to think about. We took home Ec classes and thought of ourselves as homemakers. And here was this voice who said maybe you could go to the woods, maybe you could confront life, maybe you could figure out what it is to be alive.



The polymath and writer Lewis Hyde is a thoroughly modern transcendentalist, author of a treasured book-length essay, titled The Gift, about the making of art in a commercial society.  In conversation this week we asked Lewis Hyde to speak of form and language—the almost King-James-Version Biblical rhythms in Walden—and whatever they tell the world about the scope of the project Thoreau set for himself:

So every time you can reduce your necessities you increase your freedom. And so, I think, it’s worth in any life to pause and think which of the things you feel you have to do you really have to do because to the degree that you can discard some of them you increase the range of your own freedoms.

Susan Gallagher helps us examine the ways in which the issue of slavery underlies everything Thoreau’s writing about: freedom, conscience and the crime inside the US Constitution.

Just as historians once underestimated the power of slavery in shaping American society, I think that they’ve underestimated the power of slavery in shaping Thoreau. He described slavery as an existential threat. He says ‘right we are now in hell. We are losing our lives. And then John Brown comes along in 1859 and he says this is the best news that America has ever heard. John Brown is the first man who ever lived. And how did he live? By dying. You die for a purpose and you die because you refuse to wrestle the plank from the drowning man. You refuse to make your survival depend on the extinction of the liberty of another. Liberty is more important than life.’

Susan Gallagher teaches history and political science at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and she edits a vital, earthy Thoreau website at mappingthoreaucountry.org.


Our final guest, a natural-born, walking, talking Thoreauvian named Kevin Dann came up with a brilliant answer to our question: who, in our day, has taken up Thoreau’s role?  Dann is the author of  Expect Great Things, a phrase and now a book that has the feel of the great man himself.  There will be a prize for any listener who can top Dann’s choice as the reincarnation of this fellow Thoreau.

This episode is the first in a 3-part series on Thoreau and American philosophy. Stay tuned for more transcendental radio and check in for updates on our Twitter page.

See a full transcript of this show on Medium.

This Week's Show •

Capitalism and Chains

We’re continuing our series on capitalism by going back to its unspeakable origins. A new wave of  historians say that the  “peculiar institution” of slavery explains more about the present than we’d care to admit: not ...

We’re continuing our series on capitalism by going back to its unspeakable origins.

A new wave of  historians say that the  “peculiar institution” of slavery explains more about the present than we’d care to admit: not just how the West got wealthy, but the way that global capitalism evolved in the first place.

At the beginning of his biography of John Brown, W. E. B. DuBois put slavery in terms of the eternal dream of free labor: “These black men came not of their own willing, but because the hasty greed of new America selfishly and half-thoughtlessly sought to revive in the New World the dying but unforgotten custom of enslaving the world’s workers.”

It was the global slave trade that helped make America rich, and yet no part of our history was more brutally unequal, more lucrative and less regulated than the slave-and-cotton empire.


The dream of cheap labor is alive and well, but are we comfortable knowing that it came in part from the empire of slaves and cotton? How should we take account of this unspeakable past? Leave us a message by clicking on the microphone, or comment below.

‘Like a Dog’

We’ve pulled two clips from the Library of Congress’s “Voices from the Days of Slavery’ project. They make for grim but human testimony: first from Fountain Hughes, a grandson of a slave belonging to Jefferson himself, and second from Harriet Smith, a woman who was thirteen when the Civil War ended in ‘the breakup’. The recordings are from 1941; you can listen to the entire small audio collection here.

‘Hancock Degraded’

At the spur of Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy we took up a search for records of Harvard’s slave history.

Rebecca Panovka surface one pair of notes that brings across the darkness of one terrifically unruly period in the middle of the 18th century, when undergraduates were toting pistols and sleeping with professors’ daughters, then running off into the night. These episodes have surfaced in several places, but here you can see the notes, thanks to the permission of the Harvard University Archives.

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On March 21, 1740, President Edward Holyoke and tutors agreed “that the scholars be again warned, by no Means & upon no pretence [what]soever, to presume either to Entertain or associate with, either […] Woodhouse of this Town, or Titus, a Molattoe slave of the late Rev’d Pres. Wadsworth’s.” They further ask that ‘the Buttery’ put up a sign advising students of the new restriction.

Now, in Samuel Eliot Morison’s much-admired Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636 – 1936, Titus is presented as a source of this trouble: “[he] was a frequent guest and entertainer on these festive occasions. Finally he was forbidden to enter the Yard” at the same meeting recorded above. (Titus was not a free man at this point, but outlived his master in what is now called Wadsworth House, still standing the round western corner of Harvard Yard.)

Wadsworth House, Stuart Dempster

Then again, eleven years later, we see several well-born men of Boston punished for making a slave the object of the fun — for intoxicating “a negroe-man-servt belonging to Mr. Sprague… to such Degree as greatly indanger’d his Life.” Among those ‘degraded’ was John Hancock: smuggler/financier, first signatory to the Declaration of Independence, and one of the first Harvard alumni to blaze a path into big business.

Edward Holyoke, the oldest-ever President of Harvard, who presided over this period, said on his deathbed: “If any man wishes to be humbled and mortified, let him become President of Harvard College.” No kidding. 




Podcast • November 12, 2010

Kwame Anthony Appiah: How to Make a Moral Revolution

Kwame Anthony Appiah in The Honor Code is inviting all of us to pick the “moral revolution” of our dreams and let him show us how to get big results fast. His exemplary case histories ...

Kwame Anthony Appiah in The Honor Code is inviting all of us to pick the “moral revolution” of our dreams and let him show us how to get big results fast. His exemplary case histories start with the end of dueling in England, which came swiftly on the news in 1829 of pistol shots between the Duke of Wellington (victor at Waterloo and by then Prime Minister of England) and the Earl of Winchelsea. In the same quarter century, England got out of the English slave trade and abolished slavery in the English colonies. And from the East, Appiah recounts the sudden, shamefaced end of female footbinding in China — the collapse of a thousand-year tradition within a generation after 1900. In each instance, a persistent, noxious openly immoral practice died of ridicule, as much as anything else. Appiah makes it a three-step process. First, “strategic ignorance” gets overwhelmed by a very public confrontation with an evil tinged with absurdity. Then the stakes of “honor” get redefined; no longer a prop of support, the idea of honor (as earned respect) becomes a battering ram of opposition. And finally group lobbying and popular politics seal a shift in values and practice.

Professor Appiah, the Ghanaian-English-American philosopher now at Princeton, the author of Cosmopolitanism, is talking about some of his dream crusades, and mine, maybe yours: how’s to kick the props of “honor” out from under mega-wealth and permanent war? How’s to end the routine torture of feedlot animals, the soulless warehousing of good parents and grandparents? Who is to take the “honor” out of “honor killings” today of Pakistani women and girls who’ve been raped or sexually compromised?

In our own recent American experience, torture is one window Appiah’s process, still in motion:

In both the officially, centrally sanctioned torture and the things that it led to, like Abu Ghraib… I think it’s terrible that we focused so much on the poeple at the bottom of the heap who were doing it, at the sharp end, so to speak; and didn’t focus enough on how we had created an atmosphere that made it possible… When Americans know that these things are being done in their name, or face up to the fact, unless they don’t care about our country they can’t feel anything but shame. And that’s because they understand that you’re not entitled to respect if you do things like that.

So that’s an example of the mechanism in operation. That’s why a government that wants to do these things has to do them in the dark… You refer to the values of philosophical Pragmatism. One of the values of Pragmatism which we completely lose when we behave like this is that we take our eye off what we’re actually doing. This is so counter-productive. Nothing that we’re trying to do in the world is advanced by being seen as the country that does this thing. We used to be seen as a country that wouldn’t do these things. It was understood that Syria would do these things, or that old Iraq would do these things. We understand that the Saudis, you know, stone people and beat people up. But we used to be able to claim that we were trying not to do these things; that if we found them done we would punish them; that we would go to the U.N. and the Human Rights Commmission and complain when other countries did them. We can’t do that anymore. We look ridiculous when we when we do…

So I think: an element of “soft power” is honor. And if you lose your honor (…you don’t lose all your honor; you only lose a certain dimension of it each time), then you have to regenerate it. You have to earn it back in order to be able to use that sort of soft power, which is the most powerful political resource we have in the world as Americans, I think. It’s the respect that we have sometimes earned and sometimes not earned that makes all kinds of people who disagree with us about all kinds of things nevertheless have a kind of sneaking admiration for the United States.

Kwame Anthony Appiah with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 3, 2010

Podcast • February 8, 2010

Ghana Speaking (I): The "living wound" at Cape Coast Castle

I’m in Ghana for a week — starting from Cape Coast, toward the western end of Ghana’s Atlantic shore. Cape Coast is a university town and a major fishing center in West Africa. It’s the ...

I’m in Ghana for a week — starting from Cape Coast, toward the western end of Ghana’s Atlantic shore. Cape Coast is a university town and a major fishing center in West Africa. It’s the spot where First Lady Michelle Obama locates her ancestors. It is the site of the Castle that President Obama and his family visited last July. No ordinary tourist attration, the Castle is the place that haunts human history eternally as the point where millions of Africans were warehoused, then shipped in the infamous Middle Passage to slavery in the new worlds of North and South America.

I am picking up many threads (starting with slavery) of a conversation that began most of ten years ago with the poet and teacher Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, at the University of Cape Coast. His voice has become for me one of the beautiful deep songs of Africa. Before I’d ever met Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, his book of poetry and prose, Cape Coast Castle jumped into my hands off a bookstore table in Accra, and many of his lines seemed to clutch my heart and never let go:

Slavery is the living wound under the patchwork of scars. A lot of time has passed, yet whole nations cry, sometimes softly, sometimes harshly, often without knowing why…

… perhaps the most horrendous experience of the victim society belonged to a group hardly ever mentioned in the literature: the damned who survived, those deprived relatives of the captured African. These included parents, brothers and sisters, uncles and other relatives and friends who knew and cared for the captive. In a way, theirs was a lot de profoundis, a lost of deepest death. For they were denied the cathartic benefit of a burial for their loved ones. Olaudah Equiano, the 18th century African abolitionist, tells the story in his autobiography of 1789 of how, as a greening youth, he and his sister were kidnapped from their Igbo village by slavers while their parents were at the farm… And yet what we read is not the full story, only a portion of it. For Equiano’s mother came home from the farm one evening to find her only daughter and youngest son stolen, never to be heard from again. We do not know her story. Nobody knows the story of her grief…

The Castle is a standing provocation to thought and action: upon its disarming rests a whole people’s freedom. Cape Coast Castle, the metaphor and the edifice, is a society in itself, a society of experiences, a system or order whose fundamental concepts are planted in the disordering of our society. We kneel because it stands, and it stands for a system of production, distribution and exchange. But it does not tend what it produces, does not nurture what it distributes, does not value what it exchanges. There is no tending, no nurturing, no valuing…

The fact is that the pressures of our societies today, the tributes we play in blood — colonialism, neo-colonialism, even poverty in the lopsided world order — are largely the effects of the slave trade. In the trade, societies were ransacked, the land was gutted, its human loam was washed to the sea, its potential was stunted…

Slavery gives the enslaved nothing but a legacy of pain, alienation, fear, and worst of all, a fetish erected around the denial of the fact and lasting effects of enlavement. It is a fetish that allows us to pretend that our world is whole; thus we nullify the castle by incorporating, then ignoring it. And so we live in a shattered world with an eroded sense of history in a world we swear is whole.

Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, Cape Coast Castle, A Collection of Poems, 1996. Pages 1 – 10.

I associate Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang with a broad and deep unofficial drive in Ghana to break an old silence around slavery. About the time his book was published, a troupe of Jamaican musicians and dancers refused to perform at Ghana’s first Pan-African Arts Festival, precisely because it was being held in the Castle where their forebears had been stockpiled in chains. In public and private, Ghana’s conversation about itself has never been the same again. In my first Cape Coast reunion with Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang we’re trying to keep the inquiry perpetually open-ended, as he says, “so that every new generation may visit it to quarry its lessons.”

Podcast • May 28, 2009

Booker Prize Winner Marlon James

Poets and writers come to the Calabash literary festival in Jamaica from every corner of the world, and still the overpowering voice in the fiction readings belongs to a native son from down the road ...

Poets and writers come to the Calabash literary festival in Jamaica from every corner of the world, and still the overpowering voice in the fiction readings belongs to a native son from down the road in Kingston. Marlon James, in his second novel, The Book of Night Women, has conjured a teen-age female narrator, also a green-eyed black-skinned heroine named Lilith, and a blood-curdling conspiracy of female slaves in Jamaica in the year 1800. Their mission is to burn, kill and destroy a merciless slave plantation with the same rapacious cruelty that the British masters (and a very Irish overlord) use to run it. The Book of Night Women is not so much a historical novel as a very modern elaboration of violence that strips the souls of people. You feel you’re not just reading it; you’re becoming a witness to sexual, verbal and physical ferocity that scars and reduces everybody; and then you’re a witness also to love — unnamed, but exquisitely articulated — where you least expected it. “I didn’t want to let anybody off the hook in this book, including the victims,” Marlon James remarks in our conversation. There’s a writer here with a book and a “dynamism of spoken language” that are very much for us and our world.

One of the concerns from critics was why in such a forward-looking time I was writing a backward-looking novel? You know: “Black is the new president,” “we’re post-racial” and all of that. There are a lot of answers to that, and not just the very typical one, that you need to know your history and so on. But I wasn’t writing a historical novel. There are many ways, I hope, in which this novel is in dialogue with the President. The first is the ownership of language. The story is old, but the idea of telling a story in the voices of the people who went through it is still a pretty new thing. The idea of a slave’s story or the story of urban poverty being in the voice of the people who experienced it is new, and it’s pretty radical when you look at the British West Indies. The first publisher to see The Book of Night Women was a British publisher who turned it down. And her request to me was to reconsider writing it in the third-person in standard English. And what struck me there was that even in 2007, people still refuse to have stories told by the people who experienced it, in a language that breaks standard English, that accepts lyricism, that breaks words here, that joins words here. It is a slavery novel but it is also a novel that acknowledges the dynamism of spoken dialect English. And owning it…

I didn’t want to let anybody off the hook in this novel, including the victims. And I think that it is something that had to be said. It’s too easy. I always say it and I say this sometimes when I lecture: if blacks accuse whites of denial, then blacks could accuse themselves of myth-making — that that there were all oppressive whites and all oppressed blacks. So that is why the idea of slaves owning slaves is so painful for some people to read. It’s a fact; it happened. Slaves themselves became the masters after the rebellions. I knew I could have written a very black and white story and probably still have been praised for it, largely–it must be said–out of guilt. I know I could have written about horrendous white masters beating poor slaves and have gotten away with it. To me that is intellectually dishonest. I think the more humane thing, but also a dialogue that has more to do with what is going on now, is one that recognizes all the ambiguities: that even such a dark world is still pretty gray…

It is not just a matter of knowing history so that you don’t repeat it. It is that you are headless without history. And I don’t think it is being taught enough. If I thought it was being taught enough I wouldn’t have written the book… Toni Morrison has said she writes the books that she wanted to read but could never find. And I agree with that totally. There is certainly a rich tradition of slave narratives and so on, but it is still not enough. Even the most enduring and the most lauded works about slavery tend to be about American Slavery– like Beloved. And Caribbean slavery was such a radically different thing: it was so violent. You can’t help but be hyper-violent when you are talking about West Indian slavery. And it is not even the violence itself, but the uncertainty that makes it even more violent…the slaves were not beaten into submission, they were very proud warriors from kingdoms who were just defeated in war. They were prisoners of a war of sorts, not necessarily victims who were waiting to be captured. And when you put that in a mix with people who come from Britain, mostly men, who are being thrust into this world where anything goes, it is bound to be explosive. And I think that story hasn’t been told enough.

Marlon James in conversation with Chris Lydon, at the Calabash International Literary Festival, Treasure Beach, Jamaica, May 24, 2009.

Podcast • April 28, 2008

Douglas Blackmon: Neo-Slavery in Our Times

Douglas Blackmon of the Wall Street Journal has written a newsman’s history book with staggering implications about racial reality in America today. Douglas Blackmon: truth about Jim Crow The heart of the story is that ...

Douglas Blackmon of the Wall Street Journal has written a newsman’s history book with staggering implications about racial reality in America today.

doug blackmon

Douglas Blackmon: truth about Jim Crow

The heart of the story is that slavery in the American South ended not with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the end of the Civil War, but at the onset of World War 2. That is: state-sanctioned brutal and abusive bondage ended less than 70 years ago, well within the living memory of millions of Americans, black and white. The gap between “slave time” and now is not five or six generations, but one or two at most.

The sidewalks of Atlanta today were paved in the 20th Century with millions of bricks made by “slaves by another name” — by black men the city had seized and leased over to the ex-Mayor James English’s Chattahoochee Brick Company. Some of Atlanta’s finest families were in on neo-slavery, in Blackmon’s telling — men like Joel Hurt of Atlanta’s Trust Company. No guard could ever “do enough whipping for Mr. Hurt,” it was said. “He wanted men whipped for singing and laughing.”

Slavery by Another Name is Doug Blackmon’s complete revision of the Jim Crow story, with an astonishing breadth and depth of documentation and none of the old sugar-coating or vagueness around phrases like peonage and sharecropping. “Neo-slavery” was the hard-core of a public-private system that undid the freedoms that came with Reconstruction for most of thirty years after the Civil War, and then enforced a new reign of terror over all African-Americans in the South.

What began to happen at the end of the 19th Century was the crushing new phenomenon in which whites in the North gave up on the process and made the decision that whites in the South were going to be allowed to do whatever they wished. The Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that sanctified segregation in 1896 gave a legal basis for all this. And by 1900 all of the Southern states had passed an array of laws designed to make it impossible for a black man to avoid being in violation of some ridiculous statute at all times.

Being black became the crime, and so any black man who could not prove that he had a job at a given time, any black man who sought to change employers, any black man who chose to sell the produce of his farm after dark, rather than selling to the white man nearest him… An endless number of statutes were passed which made it nearly impossible to avoid prosecution. These laws were designed to finish off the process of disenfranchising all black Americans in the South; and they effectively did it by creating this legal jeopardy that all African Americans had to live with.

The hammer that hung over their heads was the idea that if you get convicted of any of these meaningless crimes, you’ll end up in the horrifying circumstances of a slave mine or some other forced labor camp… There were endless beatings. In a relatively small work camp where you had 75 or 80 forced laborers, there might well be three to four hundred floggings in a given month. The men in the mines were beaten in the mornings if they failed to remove eight tons of coal the day before; and they were beaten at the end of the day if they failed to remove eight tons of coal that day. They were starved, and they were deprived of health care. The general attitude of the people who controlled these laborers was: as long as I’m able to keep them for a year or two years, I’ll get back my investment in the cost of acquiring them. If they die I can cheaply find another…

Douglas Blackmon in conversation with Chris Lydon about Slavery by Another Name, April 21, 2008

Slavery by Another Name is hard reading that ought to be required. At a moment of reckoning around race in our country, Doug Blackmon, a studious child of the Mississippi Delta, has offered a monumental contribution to an agonizing re-learning of who we all are.