May 19, 2013

Amongst the French

by Paul Zimmer

I do not have their words,
do not have their years or customs.
Passing them on the road,
shy as fog passing down
slopes into the valley,
I always give first utterance
or make an uncertain gesture.

My neighbors are kind,
knowing I am like rain,
that if they wait long enough,
in time I will go away.

It is the same for me in
all directions—under stars
swarming out of foothills,
on the gravel I churn
with my shoes—east, west,
north, or south—the same.
If I remained in
this friendly place forever,
I would always be a stranger.

"Amongst the French" by Paul Zimmer, from Crossing to Sunlight Revisited. © The University of Georgia Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It is the birthday of American merchant Johns Hopkins, born on a tobacco plantation in Anne Arundel County, Maryland (1795). The Hopkinses were Quakers and in 1807 they'd freed their slaves, so Johns stopped going to school at a young age to help out on the plantation.

He left for Baltimore in 1812 to work in his uncle's grocery business. He lived with his uncle's family and fell in love with his cousin Elizabeth, but Quakers strongly opposed the marriage of first cousins. Both Johns and Elizabeth remained single their entire lives. After working for his uncle for seven years, Johns started a dry goods business with his three brothers. They sold goods to farmers in the Shenandoah Valley, and they often took moonshine as payment. Back in Baltimore, they bottled the moonshine and sold it to city folk as "Hopkins' Best." Johns invested his profits in the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, turning his modest Hopkins' Best earnings into a sizeable fortune.

With no wife or children, he began to ponder the fate of his tremendous fortune after his death and in 1867 he incorporated The Johns Hopkins University and The Johns Hopkins Hospital. When he died in 1873, his $7 million fortune was divided between the two institutions.

On this day in 1897, Oscar Wilde (books by this author) was released from Reading Gaol, where he'd been sentenced to two years hard labor for "homosexual offenses."

In 1891, Wilde had been introduced to a dashing young Oxford student named Alfred Douglas. Known as "Bosie" by family and friends, Douglas was indulged, indulgent, and dangerously indiscreet, so when Wilde and Douglas became lovers, it was a badly kept secret. But Wilde was completely in Douglas' thrall and did not seem to care.

Douglas introduced Wilde to the underground world of gay prostitution in Victorian London, which Wilde found dangerous and thrilling. Wilde began to wine and dine the young working-class men who worked as prostitutes. In De Profundis, a 50,000-word letter he later wrote to Douglas from prison, he found the underground "like feasting with panthers; the danger was half the excitement."

The intimate friendship between Wilde and Douglas did not please Douglas' father, the Marquess of Queensberry, who was known as a brute, a boxer, and an atheist. He warned Wilde several times to never be seen in public with his son again, and each time Wilde was able to calm and assure the Marquess. But when the Marquess left his calling card at Wilde's gentlemen's club with the inscription, "For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]," it was Wilde who flew into a rage and, against the advice of his friends, decided to sue the Marquess for libel. The only way for the Marquess to avoid a conviction was to prove that his accusation was true.

The Marquess unleashed his lawyers to dig into Wilde's private life, and the number of witnesses and evidence they gathered in support of Wilde's homosexuality was staggering. Wilde didn't help himself on the stand, either. He often gave irreverent answers, as was his manner, and they made the case against him look worse. For instance when the prosecutor in the case pressed Wilde about whether or not he had ever kissed a certain servant boy, instead of saying, "No," he said, "Oh, dear no. He was a particularly plain boy — unfortunately ugly — I pitied him for it."

The Marquess was acquitted at trial, and almost immediately a warrant was issued for Wilde's arrest on charges of sodomy and gross indecency. His friends advised him to go to France but Wilde, tired and sad, said, "The train is gone. It is too late." He was arrested, tried, and sentence to two years' hard labor. At first he was imprisoned in London, but when he fell ill, in part due to the hard labor and terrible conditions in prison, he was transferred to the prison in Reading.

He was released from Reading on May 19th and he left right away for France, where he penned his final work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He published the poem under the pseudonym C.3.3, which had been his prison number. He died alone and penniless in France three years later.

Wilde said, "Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

He said: "Arguments are to be avoided; they are always vulgar and often convincing."

Today is the birthday of Malcolm X (books by this author), born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska (1925). When he was four years old and living in East Lansing, Michigan, white supremacists set fire to the family's home. The East Lansing police and firefighters—all white—came to the house when called, but stood by and watched it burn. When he was six, his father was murdered. Police declared his death a suicide, which invalidated the family's life insurance policy. Little's mother never recovered from her husband's murder, and entered a mental institution when the boy was 12. When he was 14, he told his high school teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer. The teacher told him to be realistic and consider a career in carpentry instead. Little dropped out of school the following year.

He was arrested for larceny in 1946, and while in prison, an older inmate encouraged him to use his time to educate himself. Little began checking out books from the prison library, and when he found his vocabulary too limited for some of them, he copied out an entire dictionary word for word. He also began a correspondence with Elijah Mohammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, and once released, became one of their most prominent organizers. He took the surname "X" to symbolize his lost African heritage.

But in 1964, Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam when he learned that his mentor was having multiple affairs, contradicting his own teachings. Seeking clarity, Malcolm that year made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Here, for the first time, he related to people of all races, and returned to America with a new message. He stopped preaching the rigid separatism that had been his trademark, and instead called for people to work together across racial lines.

At the end of 1964, over many conversations, Malcolm X dictated his life story to the writer Alex Haley. The book was almost finished when, in February of 1965, Malcolm X was shot and killed while speaking at a rally at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. He was 39 years old. A few months later Alex Haley published The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). It has since seen over 40 editions and sold in the tens of millions.

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