Feb. 23, 2009

What She Was Wearing

by Denver Butson

this is my suicide dress
she told him
I only wear it on days
when I'm afraid
I might kill myself
if I don't wear it

you've been wearing it
every day since we met
he said

and these are my arson gloves

so you don't set fire to something?
he asked


and this is my terrorism lipstick
my assault and battery eyeliner
my armed robbery boots

I'd like to undress you
he said
but would that make me an accomplice?

and today
she said I'm wearing
my infidelity underwear
so don't get any ideas

and she put on her nervous breakdown hat
and walked out the door

"What She Was Wearing" by Denver Butson from Illegible Address. © Luquer Street Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1898 the French novelist Émile Zola was found guilty of libel for writing "J'accuse," in an open letter to the French government. It accused the government and the military court of deliberately mishandling the case of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer who was wrongly accused of giving intelligence information to Germany. People were eager to convict a Jewish man, and Dreyfus was given a life sentence and sent into solitary confinement on Devil's Island. Soon after, the government found conclusive evidence that another man, Ferdinand Esterhazy, was actually guilty of the crime. But to save face, the military and the government produced false evidence to acquit Esterhazy and confirm Dreyfus' guilt.

Émile Zola was a prolific novelist and a well-respected public intellectual. Two days after Esterhazy was acquitted, his 4,000-word letter took up the entire front page of the French newspaper L'Aurore, with its one-word title, "J'accuse!" ("I accuse!"). Zola took apart the case, proved Dreyfus' innocence and Esterhazy's guilt, exposed the government cover-up, and directly accused government and military figures of anti-Semitism and abusing the justice system.

Zola was well-known outside of France, and "J'accuse" brought the Dreyfus case to the attention of the international community. After reading it, most believed that Dreyfus was innocent. Zola was arrested for libel, and his trial got a lot of media coverage. In the courtroom, people screamed and got in brawls, and mobs tried to attack Zola as he left each day. He was convicted on this day in 1898 and ordered to spend a year in jail. He escaped to England, where he lived in exile. But in less than two years, a new court reversed Dreyfus' sentence and dropped the libel charge against Zola. Both men returned to France, and in 1906, Dreyfus was reinstated in the army.

It's the birthday of W.E.B. Du Bois, (books by this author) born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts (1868). His town was virtually all white. But he didn't really notice racial discrimination — he said that he was only aware of it when people visited from out of town. He was smart; he went to Fisk University in Nashville and then to Harvard, where he was the first African-American to get a Ph.D. He taught sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, and he carried out the first serious sociological study of African-Americans, which showed that poverty and crime in black communities were a result of racial barriers in education and employment. In 1909, he founded NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

It's the birthday of the diarist Samuel Pepys, (books by this author) born in London (1633). He was born into poverty, but he managed to work his way up to become a naval administrator and a member of Parliament. And he kept a diary, collecting all his thoughts for about 10 years, about large and small matters. He wrote about the Great Plague of 1665, the Great Fire of 1666, and the Second Anglo-Dutch War; but he also wrote about what he liked to eat, his love life with his wife, his insecurities, and his extramarital affairs.

On this day in 1662, February 23rd, Pepys wrote:

This day by God's mercy I am 29 years of age, and in very good health, and like to live and get an estate; and if I have a heart to be contented, I think I may reckon myself as happy a man as any is in the world, for which God be praised. So to prayers and to bed.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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