28 February 2010



Amistad is the story of a slave revolt involving some fifty people aboard the Spanish ship La Amistad, and their struggle to be seen as human beings after they are captured as they attempt to sail back to Africa.  After breaking loose of their chains, a young African named Sengbe and his fellow ex-slaves commandeer the vessel in hopes of returning home, but stumble upon the US Navy and are brought to Connecticut to stand trial for murder and piracy. Three separate parties -- the Kingdom of Spain, the Spanish crew, and the two American naval officers who claimed to  have salvaged the ship -- sue for ownership of the Amistad and its "cargo". The Amistad insurrectionists, unable to communicate with their American captors, are forced into a public cage while their fate is decided in the property courts.

A minor act of arbitration is brought to national prominence, however, when abolitionists seize the opportunity to attack the institution of slavery. Since US law decrees that only people born into the instution of slavery on a plantation can be considered slaves, the Amistad captives may go free if it is proven that they were captured in Africa, and not born into slavery. An ocean thus lies between their being defined as "men" or "slaves".

Southern politicans, dependent on the slave system, realize the acquittal of the prisoners may become a moral boon to the abolitionist cause. They thus bring all their resources to bear, including President Martin van Buren, who fears he may not be reelected if the southerners are not pleased with the outcome of the trial.  Although the abolitionists are able to win in local and state legislatures despite the odds,  the pro-slavery forces continue to manipulate the system to their own benefit. The battle is eventually taken to the Supreme Court: staffed almost wholly by southern politicians, it seems likely that the captives will be sent to Spain to be executed as murderers, or worse still be reduced to a life of slavery.

The beleaugered defender of the alleged slaves seeks counsel from the ailing John Quincy Adams. Aided by a young translator who allows the captives and Sengbe to tell the story of how they were stolen from their homes and shipped across the ocean in miserable conditions,  the abolitionists and their supporters take on the highest court of the land and all of its prejudices. The essential theme of the movie is one of humanity -- are we human with rights only if the law acknowledges them, or are human rights more fundamental?  Part of the film's interest for me is that it argues the latter while pretending to argue the former. We have rights  as much as we are willing to declare them and fight for them.

The plot of this emotionally provactive courtroom drama contains both humor and tragedy, although more of the latter. Those sensitive to violence should be warned that the scenes depicting Sengbe and the others' treatment aboard the slave-ship is especially graphic. The acting was effective, as far as I noticed: Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams and Djimon Hounsou as Sengbe are especially strong on the screen. I also enjoyed the movie's soundtrack, particularly the parts of it rooted in African sources.  The film is not without its faults, although only one scene is truly objectionable. In this, Sengbe and an associate are seen examining an illustrated version of the Judeo-Christian bible and taking hope in the idea that Jesus will be there for them just as he was for the Jews. I found this unlikely, patronizing, and repugnant -- especially so given that Jesus never said a word against slavery, nor did the founder of his religion, Paul. Since the scene is not referenced again, nor is anything built upon it, it seems like an overly pious and fraudulent imposition. Overall, though, the movie's story gripped me.

The trailer is below.

A few years ago I contemplated sharing movies and books that might be of interest to a humanistically-minded audience -- movies that said something about the human condition, particularly about our ability to live life well in spite of circumstances. I have not found many movies that do this, but my intention to make this blog more broadly themed around the humanities widens the range of movies I might share. This is the first.

26 February 2010

Better Man

Keb' Mo', associated with the international music and humanitarian effort Playing for Change, has several songs on Youtube I enjoy. I particularly like the third verse and chorus of his "Better Man".


Sittin' here in my problems,
What am I gonna do now?
Am I gonna make it --
Someway, somehow?

Well, maybe I'm not supposed to know --
Maybe I'm supposed to cry.
If nobody ever knows the way I feel,
That's all right: that's okay.

I'm gonna make my world a better place
Gonna keep that smile on my face
I'm gonna teach myself how to understand
Gonna make myself a better man. 

Climbin' out the window, climbin' up the wall
Anyone gonna save me?
Or are they gonna let me fall?
Well, I don't really want to know..
I'm gonna hold on the best I can.
And if I fall down, I'm gonna get back up.
It'll be all right, it'll be okay.


I don't really want to know,
I'm gonna hold on the best I can.
If I fall down down, I'm gonna get back up
It'll be all right, it'll be okay.


I'm gonna make my world a better place,
Gonna keep that smile on my face
Gonna teach myself how to understand
Gonna make myself a better man.

25 February 2010

Jesus is Coming

What follows is a recollection from my past:  I do it partially to collect my thoughts on the matter, but I also think other people might be interested to know what certain aspects within a cult-like sect are like to live.


I used to live in terror of the Rapture. The Rapture, for those not raised in any of the particular Christian sects that follow it, is the belief that one day Jesus will summon his followers to heaven.This may happen before a seven-year period in which God terrorizes Earth, or afterwards. The saved souls will float into the sky, perhaps, or simply vanish without a trace.  I never liked the idea of leaving Earth, nor was I sure that I would be called up. I never felt anything at Pentecostal services, so every mention of the Rapture was a reminder to me that I was possibly doomed.  Sure, I might avoid Hellfire if God ever got around to embracing me....but what if he Raptured everyone away before that happened?

We were obsessed about the Rapture. Perhaps the most terrorizing service I ever endured happened in my senior year of high school, when the youth group performed a mid-service skit. The auditorium's lights were shut off, its windows covered in black construction paper. The pastor's daughter, dressed in an angelic robe,  had a light on her face. She played herself as though she was in heaven. For a few minutes she spoke on the glories she could see, and then wondered aloud if her friends were there. One by one, she'd call for us and we'd stand up. "I'm here! I'm here! I made it!" I yelled, pumping my first in the air. Then she called for a girl named Crystal...and all was silent.


More silence -- silence that lasted for agonizing minutes until finally we could hear a soft sobbing. Crystal was hidden in one of the church's back rooms with the lead microphone -- and she was playing the part of the damned and tortured soul who was not Raptured away, but instead consigned to the flames of Hell. She mourned her foolishness in not following the Acts 2:38 instructions. Her voice was one of tortured misery and despair; the entire church fell out of their chairs sobbing. No one wanted to miss the Rapture.

If I endured that now, I would be either amused at the blatancy of it or horrified that people were being manipulated into fear in this fashion. But back then, I was the one being manipulated. I refused to read the Left Behind books back then, the possibility of being Left Behind was not one I wanted to face. I would often dream of missing the Rapture, from childhood on -- a reflection of my inner fears.

In real life, I often had "Rapture Panics". If my parents were not home when they should be and I could not contact them, fear gripped me. I would begin calling people from church that I felt were saved, starting with people who I might actually have a reason to call.  Once I heard the voice of a saved person, relief swept over me. On more than one occassion, though, I was unable to find anyone and was reduced to sobbing that all was lost. Once, I stuck in home movies of my parents and bawled for nearly an hour as I watched. In another instance, I found myself alone in a big city: we were attending a religious conference there, and my parents left me alone while they attended an adults-only service. When they did not return within four hours, I lugged out a massive phonebook and was about to call the conference center to see if anything had happened

The Rapture made me afraid until spring of 2006, at which point religion lost its hold on me completely.  Mentions of the Rapture amused me at that point, and in 2007 I read the entire Left Behind series -- all sixteen books -- just out of morbid amusement. (That isn't much of an accomplishment: for their thickness, the books tend toward the shallow. I could've read all sixteen in a day or two.)

My parents still believe in the Rapture, and further believe that both my sister and I will be left behind, as neither of us are in the Oneness/Holiness Pentecostal fold. They weep when they pray for us, but I do not think they inflict this pain on themselves too often. Given the emotion toll unquestioning beliefs took on me, there is no question of my ever going back.

14 February 2010

Asimov on Valentine's

I recently finished a book of essays by Isaac Asimov on assorted topics, and one of them is appropriate to share today. I won't be sharing the essay in full -- there's far too much text for that-- but I'll share excerpts and summarize elsewhere to link passages together.

The essay begins with Asimov explaining the etymology of Valentine:

The Latin word valere means "to be strong", and from it we get such words as "valiant" and "valor", since one expects a strong person to be brave. We also get words such as "value" and "valid", since strength can refer not only to muscular power but also to something that finds its strength in being worth a great deal or in being true. In naming children, we can make use of words that imply the kind of character or virtue that we hope to find or instill in him or her. [...] The ancient Romans, by the same reasoning, might use the name "Valens", which means "strength". By the irony of history, such a name became particularly popular in the latter days of the Empire, when Rome  had grown weak. 

He then introduces a Roman emperor named Valens, a poor general who died while fighting the Goths at Adrianople. Valens had a brother who held the diminutive form of the name, "Valentiniatus". This diminutive form was popular, and is now shortened by English-speaking people to "Valentine".  One martyr of the Catholic church, his feast day being 14 February, was St. Valentine.  Having said all this, Asimov turns to the Roman holiday of Lupercalia -- celebrated on 15 February.

The ancient Romans had a holy spot where (according to legend) the wolf had suckled the twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, the former of whom eventually founded Rome. The spot was called "the Lupercal", from the Latin word lupus, meaning "wolf".
On that spot, every February 15, there was a festival held called the Lupercalia, during which animals were sacrificed. Thongs were prepared from the bloody strips of animal hide, and priests  ran through the crowd striking out with those thongs. Those who were struck were considered to be cured of sterility. Naturally, those who wanted children flocked to the festival. Afterwards, I imagine, they engaged in those activities that were expecting to give rise to children -- striking while the iron was hot, so to speak. Consequently, the lupercalian festivities were associated with love and sex.
In 494, Pope Gelasius I forbade this pagan festival, but that sort of thing does no good. The festival simply continues under another name. For example, the celebration of the winter solstice was forbidden, but it still continues with almost all the pagan customs of the ancient Romans -- under the name of "Christmas". To the celebration of the vernal equinox was added the Christian feast of the resurrection, which became "Easter", and so on.
The Lupercalian festival of February 15 simply became St. Valentine's Day of February 14. Legends arose later to the effect that St. Valentine had been kindly to lovers, but that is undoubtedly just a cover for the good old fertility rites that have always been popular (and, I strongly suspect, always will be). 

He ends the essay by commenting on the trivialization of the holiday by the greeting card industry. You can find the full essay in The Tyrannosaurus Prescription by Asimov, or in the forward to Fourteen Vicious Valentines.

13 February 2010

Sand and Foam

 A few weeks back I enjoyed Kahlil Gibran's Sand and Foam for the first time, and thought I'd share some of my favorite lines here.
I am forever walking upon these shores,
Betwixt the sand and the foam.
The high tide will erase my foot-prints,
And the wind will blow away the foam.
But the sea and the shore will remain

Strange, the desire for certain pleasures is part of my pain.

I am ignorant of absolute truth. But I am humble before my ignorance and therein lies my honor and my reward.

The significance of man is not in what he attains, but rather than what he longs to attain.

Many a doctrine is like a window pane. We see truth through it but it divides us from truth.

When you reach the heart of life, you will shall find beauty in all things, even in the eyes that are blind to beauty.

Pity is but half justice.

If the other person laughs at you, you can pity him; but if you laugh at him you may never forgive your self. If the other person injures you, you may forget the injury; but if you injure him you will always remember.In truth the other person is your most sensitive self given another body.

Hate is a dead thing. Who of you would be a tomb?

The tribune of humanity is in its silent heart, never its talkative mind.

You cannot judge any man beyond your knowledge of him, and how small is your knowledge.

I would not listen to a conqueror preaching to the conquered.

Wisdom ceases to be wisdom when it becomes too proud to weep, too grave to laugh, and too self-ful to seek other than itself.

I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to these teachers.

Turtles can tell more about the roads than hares.

Strange that creatures without backbones have the hardest shells.

Should you sit upon a cloud you would not see the boundary line between one country and another, nor the boundary stone between a farm and a farm.  It is a pity you cannot sit upon a cloud.