Wednesday

Jun. 27, 2012

Invictus

by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
       Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
       For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
       I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
       My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
       Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
       Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
       How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
       I am the captain of my soul.

"Invictus" by William Ernest Henley. © Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Lucille Clifton (books by this author), born in Depew, New York (1936). Her books include Good News About the Earth (1972) and Blessing the Boats: New and Collected Poems (2000).

Clifton said, "Poetry is a matter of life, not just a matter of language."

And: "Cleverness gets in the way of creativity. Cleverness is often the easy way, the expected in your work, and I try very hard not to take the easy way out."

It's the birthday of Alice McDermott (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1953). In 1982, she published her first novel, The Bigamist's Daughter, and since then she has written five more novels, including Charming Billy (1998) and After This (2006).

It's the 97th birthday of writer and activist Grace Lee Boggs (books by this author), born in Providence, Rhode Island (1915). Her parents were immigrants from Guangdong province in China, and her father ran a Chinese restaurant in downtown Providence. She grew up in a tiny apartment above the restaurant. Her mother didn't know how to read — she had been sold into slavery in China as a young girl, and her only escape was an arranged marriage with Grace's father, who was 20 years her senior. Grace remembers being a young girl, crying over one thing or another, and hearing the waiters in her father's restaurant suggest her parents should leave her outside to die since she was a girl. She said, "That's how I learned early on about living for change." When her family moved to New York City to open up restaurants there, they had to buy their house in Queens in the name of their Irish contractor, because Asians weren't allowed to own land there.

She won a scholarship to Barnard College, where she studied philosophy. She went on to get her Ph.D. at Bryn Mawr College, and after she graduated, she couldn't find a job — not only was it impossible for women of color to get jobs as academics, but even department stores told her that they didn't hire Asians. So she headed to Chicago and was eventually offered a job at the University of Chicago Philosophy Library. She earned $10 a week and lived for free on a couch in a basement filled with rats. She wore the same clothes every day: a blue corduroy jumper, saddle oxfords, and when it was cold out, a leopard coat.

The rats were so bad that she went to check out the South Side Tenants Organization, which fought against rat-infested housing in the South Side. Through that group, she began working with the black community in Chicago, and she participated in the March on Washington. She became a radical community organizer, and a few years later, she met Jimmy Boggs, a black autoworker in Detroit. He was recently divorced, with six children. For their first date, Grace invited Jimmy over to dinner. He showed up two hours late, and he refused to eat the lamb chops she had prepared because he thought they were too fancy. She put on a Louis Armstrong record, and Boggs announced that he hated Armstrong. But by the end of the date, he asked her to marry him. She accepted without hesitation, and they were married for 40 years, until his death in 1993. She said: "My knowledge had come mostly from books. He had never been to college, although he was full of ideas. [...] He was the person in the [...] community to whom everyone came for advice [...] So when he asked me to marry him on our first date [...] I didn't hesitate for a minute."

Boggs continued her work as a radical activist in Detroit, and she and her husband worked together on projects and publications. Her books include Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century (1974), co-written with her husband; and most recently, The Next American Revolution (2011), published when she was 95 years old.

She said: "Do something local. Do something real, however, small. And don't dis the political things, but understand their limitations."

It's the birthday of activist Helen Keller (books by this author), born in Tuscumbia, Alabama (1880). The story of her childhood is well-known: how as a toddler she became sick with an illness that left her both blind and deaf, and how she became a difficult child, until her 20-year-old teacher, Anne Sullivan, managed to communicate the letters for "water" while running water from the pump on the little girl's hand. It was a breakthrough, and on that day alone, Keller learned 30 words.

She was very bright, and went on to Radcliffe College. By the time she was a teenager, her story had made Keller a celebrity. One of her admirers was Mark Twain. Twain met Keller when she was just 14, and they remained friends throughout his life. He said, "The two most interesting characters of the 19th century are Helen Keller and Napoleon Bonaparte."

Keller became a popular lecturer. She began sharing her story and advocating for others with disabilities, but became a radical activist along the way. She joined the Socialist Party of Massachusetts in 1909, when she was 29, and then the Industrial Workers of the World. She supported Communist Russia and hung a red flag over her desk. The FBI opened a file on her. She advocated for women's suffrage and for access to birth control. She helped found the American Civil Liberties Union.

Helen Keller died in 1968, at the age of 87.

She said, "No one has ever given me a good reason why we should obey unjust laws."

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

 









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