Saturday, July 7, 2012

Identifying with Pressures - Dido Belle and Mary Seacole

As I prepare to write my sermon for Sunday and the last presentations for Black History Month in 2010, the research is still necessary and progresses. I've shared the return to this plateau of public speaking with my historical novel writers group. In doing so, I've requested input from those who do American re-enactments and those in other countries in regard to the American race experience, especially in regard to the Negro or Black, from their perspectives as re-enacters or natives of other lands looking to America and reacting to its circumstances.

One group member who is in New Zealand shared three names with me. So far, I've only been able to read about the two women, Dido Belle and Mary Seacole. Although Dido experienced extremely similar situations and acceptance with her family as I experience here at The Alhambra, the assisted living and retirement community where I currently reside, it is the impressions expressed by Mary Seacole that evidence how I am feeling at this point in time.

The history expresses:

Later that year Mary followed her brother Edward to the Isthmus of Panama where her medical skills were soon needed for an outbreak of cholera. She also set up a hotel for travellers selling food and medical provisions mainly to the English and the Americans passing through. It was here that Mary had her first experience of the slaves of America and was deeply affected by their treatment.

In 1854 the Crimean war broke out and Mary realised that her skills could be of great help to the soldiers on the front line. She went once again to England and applied to the war office and several other bodies to be sent to the Crimea. She came well armed with excellent references from the many distinguished officers she had helped and worked with over the years but to no avail. Mary began to feel that her colour was hindering her chances.

'I was so conscious of the unselfishness of the motives which induced me to leave England - so certain of the service I could render among the sick soldiery, and yet I found it so difficult to convince others of these facts. Doubts and suspicions arose in my heart for the first and last time, thank heaven. Was it possible that American prejudices against colour had some root here? Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs? Tears streamed down my foolish cheeks, as I stood in the fast thinning streets; tears of grief that any should doubt my motives.'

Mary was not so easily deterred. Unable to secure a position from the war office, or any other English establishment, she used her own funds to make her way to the Crimea. There she established her own British Hotel and spent the rest of the war tending to the wounded and the sick and providing decent food and shelter to those most in need.

Her words embolden me.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Political Reform Revisited

The dynamics leading up to repeal of the new Healthcare Reform bill have been interesting to observe. Being one who is fascinated by the lessons we can learn from history, it wasn't difficult to see many parallels between Reconstruction Congress and the destructiveness of the current and last one.

In case something was being misinterpreted and twisted from reality, I decided to review some of my Black History materials and compare them with what can be found on the web in regard to the U.S. Congress from the 1860s, also known as the Reconstruction Congress.

The focus is on the newly-installed Black members of this august body. My recollection is that while all 31 Representatives and two Senators were very well educated and capable men, they faced inordinate obstacles to doing their actual work because their challenges were sometimes not so subtle maneuverings to unseat them due to their race. Not to trust memory to this very important issue, I went to Google which pointed me to Wikipedia. My recollection was correct.

There was only one member of the Congress who was also a non-slave electee who seems to have avoided the vitriol. Otherwise, all suffered some type of distraction from their stated duties that essentially tore them away from their jobs, led to Jim Crow, and made them less effective than we (as the country of electors) would have wanted. How similar this state of affairs seems to be to our current Congress and the last session as bi-partisan politics fueled getting Black representatives' having aspersions cast their way to discredit their character and therefore diminish legislation and representation that they backed.

The saying is, "History repeats itself." Perhaps that is why the Healthcare Reform Bill is being dismantled by both parts of the Congress and I struggle to preserve these thoughts. Does this act of destruction (under the guise of insufficiency) portend the removal of Obama and the restoration of a Reganesque/Bush-like administration? And does this mean it will take yet another 100 years to gain any meaningful inroads for those who are American, whether naturalized or natural, to receive any of the fruits of the American Promise?

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Forensic Reconstruction of George Washington, Part 1

Here's another post by guest blogger, Suzanne Adair

How is it possible to forensically create an accurate, life-sized figure of someone long dead without having access to the deceased's bones? The traveling museum exhibit, "Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon," features three life-sized figures of George Washington at the ages of 19, 45, and 57. To create these figures for the exhibit without exhuming Washington, the folks at Mount Vernon sought the expertise of Dr. Jeffrey H. Schwartz, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh. Schwartz collaborated with at least ten other experts.

Schwartz used a laser technique to scan the three-dimensional life mask, bust, and statue created by Jean-Antoine Houdon when Washington was in his early fifties. The associated computer program captured points and extrapolated them, allowed the team to morph the shape of Washington's face and body according to known physiological data about him at various ages. Schwartz also had access to the following for Washington:
  • His dentures
  • His surviving, unaltered clothing
  • Portraits from actual sittings (v. sightings)
  • Text sources such as letters and diaries that described Washington
GWDentures Several issues affected Schwartz's interpretation of Washington. Tooth loss and use of dentures affect the shape of the jaw and mouth. Tooth loss for the first president started when he was in his twenties. By the time he took his oath of office at age 57, he had only one of his natural teeth left in his mouth and used an uncomfortable set of dentures. This set of Washington's dentures is on display in the exhibit.

Also, Washington had contracted smallpox in Barbados when he was nineteen. No records have been found to indicate the amount of facial scarring that he endured from the disease. However, Schwartz believes that a scar visible on Washington's left cheek in some portraits was from smallpox and not the result of a tooth abscess, as sometimes theorized.
According to Schwartz, children of the 18th century were corseted from an early age, boys through about their fifth year. This permanently affected the spine's shape and the body's carriage. Shoulders of adult men were brought back and down. The curve of the lower back was accentuated, as was the belly. In this portrait of Washington, you can see those features.
What were the results when Schwartz and his team pulled all of this together? Check back here on Wednesday for a look at George Washington when he was 19, 45, and 57.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Georgian Secrets: Ladies' Undergarments During the American War of Independence

Suzanne Adair blogs at

She's Clio's guest today cross post blogging about:

Georgian Secrets: Ladies' Undergarments During the American War of Independence

Readers occasionally ask me what ladies of the late 18th century wore for underwear beneath those lovely gowns and petticoats. Did they wear panties? What made their hips so huge and their torsos look like tubes?

On Sunday 19 September, Louise Benner, the Curator of Costumes and Textiles at the North Carolina Museum of History presented the program "From Head to Toe: Clothing in 18th-Century North Carolina." A portion of her program included showing the audience the underclothing beneath the gorgeous polonaise gown that a volunteer named Gina was wearing.

For upper class and many middle-class women, undergarments consisted of the following:

* Shift. Ms. Benner's hand is on the sleeve of Gina's shift. The shift, later called a "chemise," was made of cotton, linen, wool, or silk, had three-quarter length sleeves, and reached to the middle of the woman's calf. Shifts doubled as sleepwear.
* Stays. In the picture, the stays are the greenish garment across Gina's midsection. Stays were heavily boned, usually with whalebone, to keep the torso erect and thus heavily restricted movement in the upper body. Stays also gave women's torsos that "tube" look.
* Panniers. Also known as side hoops, these were tied around the waist. Panniers made the hips look extra-broad beneath the petticoat and lower portion of the gown. If the gown and petticoat were made of heavy material, panniers would be constructed of metal to support the weight of the fabric.
* Pockets. Gina's right hand rests on a pocket, accessible through slits in her gown and petticoat. Women might wear pockets on both hips and/or embroider their pockets. Embroidered pockets could be worn atop the petticoat instead of beneath it.
* Stockings. Made of natural fiber like the shift, stockings were tied with ribbons just above the knee.

A woman such as a laundress who performed physical labor also wore a shift and pockets, but instead of stays and a gown, she wore a short jacket (also called a short gown) with some boning, usually pinned closed across the front. The jacket reached to just below her waist and covered the top portion of her petticoat.

Panties arrived on the underwear scene decades later.

Ms. Benner's presentation was part of a collection of lectures and free programs that supports the traveling exhibition, "Discover the Real George Washington: New Views From Mount Vernon." The North Carolina Museum of History is the only venue in the southeast to host this exhibit, which runs through 21 January 2011. Colonial North Carolina Family Day on 25 September, in which I will participate, is one of the supporting programs.

Monday, September 6, 2010

King Herod and Cleopatra's Daughter

cross-posted from

Though no ancient sources directly link the two monarchs, it’s difficult to write a novel about the life of Cleopatra’s daughter without referencing one of her mother’s bitterest enemies.

Herod the Great was Cleopatra VII’s rival even before her affair with the Roman Triumvir, Antony. As a Ptolemy, Cleopatra maintained a hereditary claim on Judea, but that wasn’t the only source of her conflict with King Herod.

To say that Herod’s personal life was a study in dysfunction is to put it lightly. When he entered on a campaign to rid himself of his wife’s relatives, of the Hasmonean Dynasty that preceded him, his mother-in-law found a sympathetic ally in Cleopatra VII. The Queen of Egypt tried to intercede on behalf of her friend, and apparently won Herod’s lifelong enmity as a result.

The feeling appears to have been mutual. Cleopatra would later demand from Antony that Herod’s whole kingdom be surrendered to her, but because Herod had been a loyal friend to Antony, he only stripped Herod of date and balsam plantations in Jericho and Ein Gedi.

The rivalry reached such a fever pitch that Herod is said to have considered assassinating Cleopatra, but was dissuaded by his advisors, who assured him that Antony would never forgive him. After Antony and Cleopatra’s defeat, King Herod went over to Octavian, asserting that he had given Antony the best possible advice: Kill Cleopatra.

Did the rivalry end there, or did Herod continue to fear the Ptolemies even after the famous queen took her own life?

Three of Cleopatra’s children survived the civil war: little Ptolemy Philadelphus, Cleopatra Selene, and her twin brother, Alexander Helios. As Ptolemies, all three could exert a claim over Judea, and because they were half-Roman, it might well have been feared that their claims might be supported against Herod if the political fortunes of Octavian should change. Even dead, Cleopatra and Antony still had their partisans, in Rome and elsewhere. Alexandrian cults like those surrounding the goddess Isis still held enormous political sway. If we credit the gospel of Matthew, then we also know that Herod was particularly threatened by children born under auspices and omens, which would have led him to be doubly wary of Cleopatra’s twins.

Given the portrait of Herod that has come down to us through the ages–namely that he was so power hungry and paranoid that he had his own sons put to death as rivals–it is difficult to believe that he ever viewed Cleopatra’s daughter with dispassion. Cleopatra Selene not only survived childhood, but went on to become Queen of Mauretania. Are we to believe that King Herod was not made uneasy to see his enemy’s daughter given more territory to rule than all the other client kingdoms in the empire put together?

Cleopatra Selene and her husband Juba appear to have had the implicit trust of Augustus, and did not need to make frequent visits back to the capitol to secure his good will, but Herod was less secure. Whereas Selene and Juba founded a port city and named it after Caesar, Herod commenced building two such cities, naming them both after Augustus. Whereas Cleopatra Selene and Juba appear to have worked in easy concert with their proconsular neighbors in Africa Novo, Herod was obliged to get permission for his military exploits, and overstepped on at least one occasion, prompting an angry letter from Augustus. Given these tensions, it is hard to imagine that Herod and Selene did not wish one another ill.

However, whether or not an active rivalry between Herod and Cleopatra Selene existed, the King of Judea was a pivotal contemporary figure in her life by which she must have measured most of her accomplishments as a client queen. That Herod comes down to us through history more well-known than Cleopatra Selene is partially a function of her gender, but also because her reign was one of relative peace and prosperity, lacking the big splashy family drama that marked Herod’s rule.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Troy and Women from Hollywood's Perspective

The movie "Troy" is now 30 minutes into playing out on AMC. Well done movie.

I'm also enjoying Brad Pitt in his portrayal of Achilles. He's a haughty, prideful, resentful young man who bears no loyalty to anyone except, perhaps, to his mother. I like his representation in this movie because he breaks from the static, predictable character acting of all his other movies I've seen since "Thelma and Louise."

Also interesting in this story is finally being able to see all the Greek characters I've read about in mythology and history taking their respective places in time juxtaposed to one another. Things finally come together. Relationships are made clear. I'll probably take the next 1.5 hrs to watch this story play out so that I can see how the history goes with all the parts and pieces put together instead of a bit here and a bit there. These are not people who were scattered across time, mere puppets acting out some mindless tasks. These were people full of feelings, cares, fears, needs for respect and association. They had desires to attain great things in many ways.

One thing I'm finding fascinating in this representation, however, is that Pitt seems to be telling us that Achilles was gay. Of course the Encyclopedia Britannica Junior was going to contain a very sanitized version of his life. But nothing else provided that perspective. It appears one of his lovers was his "cousin" (whose name I didn't catch) but as the story progresses, that concept is downplayed in deference to his finding Briseis and ultimately developing care for her.

From a historical analysis I saw many years ago on a PBS program, there was a discussion of Greek moralities and customs. Because so much emphasis was placed on family and the sanctity of the union, the virginity of the bride, men were allowed homosexual relationships until they were ready to wed. Once married, homosexual relationships were forbidden and the marriage bed was protected from desecration. So also were the young women protected from premature awareness and childbirth too early for the development and successful delivery of healthy offspring. Dalliances were discouraged.

I'm also finding the portrayal of the women and their roles in the household (even if it is the court) is fascinating. There seems to be a lot of liberty and freedom in many ways. Whereas, the knowledge I've been given before seeing this is that women were still subservient but not as much as other civilizations. There's no representation of how women played a role in political strategy and decision making. But then, women were the minor characters in this story. This was a story about how one woman caused a war and the focus was on carrying out the war.

Still, this story says women played a very minor role in life and governing. Why have women been treated as mere public eye candy and baby bearers? They are so essential is bringing about developing our cultures, telling the stories, being in partnership with the work and essential in planning. Yet, here again, they are shown as being the minor characters and mere tools in carrying out the larger scheme of life.

As in my youth, I viewed this movie and got curious about the facts - which were real and which fictional. I don't have a wonderful encyclopedia now. I have my laptop and access to information on the Web. So I went to the story of Achilles that can be found on Wikipedia. Interesting how this movie dovetailed so well with the facts on the encyclopedia.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Month to Honor Augustus

cross-posted from

In 8BC, the month of Sextilis was re-named in honor of Rome's first emperor and we've called it August ever since.

In choosing the month to honor him, Augustus didn't choose the month of his own birth, but rather, the month in which he conquered Cleopatra. Augustus had his detractors, then and now, but it seems only right that we should take this month to celebrate his accomplishments.

Augustus put an end to the civil wars by ruthlessly eliminating all possible rivals. Once he was the unquestioned ruler of the empire, however, he was able maintain a period of relative peace and prosperity for the Romans that lasted more than two hundred years. This became known as the Pax Romana.

A superb administrator, he seems to have attempted to inculcate a love of peace in the Roman mindset that transcended the more traditional aspirations of war-booty and territorial expansion. What's more, unlike his predecessor, Julius Caesar, Augustus had a knack for recruiting men who would not only be useful to him, but also, loyal. Though Augustus wasn't talented on the battlefield, he befriended men of military brilliance, like his school friend, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa.

Order was the byword of his regime, and he used his authority as "First Citizen" to reform and stabilize the empire. He introduced the notion of publicly funded police and fire fighters. He maintained a standing army to defend Roman territory. He built an unprecedented number of roads and instituted public projects on a scale never attempted before, or perhaps since. He standardized taxation throughout the empire and he restored a great many temples.

Of his most enduring legacies was the effective political use of an appeal to traditional values to silence his critics. Augustus asked the Romans to reform their behavior so as to be in keeping with older and supposedly more simple times. He passed all manner of social legislation that directly interfered with the family lives of his subjects--laws on marriage, adultery, and social obligation. His attempt to transform Roman society was ultimately a failure: within a generation, the debauched days of Caligula were visited upon the Romans. However, the political notion of a culture war endures to this day.


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