Finding your Roots

My wife and I have become fascinated by the PBS show called “Finding your Roots.” Historian Henry Louis Gates hosts three people of prominence and shares with them interesting things he discovers about their ancestry.

The show provides a rich and personal history lesson to the three guests and the audience. We have learned many things we did not know, especially when races and ethnicities intermingle or families flee bigotry, enslavement or persecution.

Here are a few of those learnings:

– every family has unusual circumstances or secrets that may not have been shared, as the information may have been embarassing, highly personal or even dangerous if others knew.

– there were some freed African-Americans living in areas of the South and more surprisingly, some of these freed African-Americans owned slaves.

– we knew of African-Americans that fought for the Union, but some fought for the Confederacy, and some of those fought for the Union after their City fell to the Union.

– Fascists and anti-Semites know no boundary. Some Jews escaped Poland from Polish anti-Semites long before they tried to escape the Nazis. Some escaped Russia for the same reason, then had to leave England to escape it there.

– it is not surprising for the guests to find different races and ethnicities in their background – the history is validated by DNA tests.

As examples of this last point, Bryant Gumbel found out he was about 10% European Jew. Suzanne Malveaux from CNN has multiple races mixed in, including Native American, French Quebec and sub-Saharian African. The comedian Fred Armisten found out his Japanese grandfather was actually Korean who fled persecution and was an acclaimed dancer in Japan. Larry David, who does a great Bernie Sanders impersonation, has DNA that makes him a distant relative of Sanders, which neither knew.

I encourage you to watch the show, even if you may not know the guests. Also, go on Ancestry.com and spend some time tracing your roots. It will suck you in, but do invest some time. History is fun, especially when it is yours.

Bottom-up history

In the movie “Bull Durham,” Susan Sarandon’s character Annie Savoy confides to Kevin Costner’s character Crash Davis the morning after their tryst that due to her love of horses, she must have been Catherine the Great in a previous life. Davis laughs and says how come when people bring up previous lives they are never Joe Schmo? To his point, history is made up of us normal, everyday people more so than the ones that get notoriety, whether it is deserved or undeserved. We live our lives the best we can and sometimes it matters not who the leaders are, unless they have done something very bad or very good.

I was watching PBS Newshour earlier in the week and I found a segment very moving and enlightening which I will call “Bottom-up history.” David Isay formed an organization called StoryCorps about ten years ago, whose purpose is to capture recorded interviews with everyday people. His organization began in Grand Central Station in New York, but moved onto several other cities. It now has a mobile unit that caravans across America. And, recently he has teamed with some innovators to craft cartoon stories than will be aired on PBS. A link to his Wikipedia page is below.*

His mission is to capture the bottom-up history and not the top down version that is taught in school or makes the headlines. The interviews are facilitated to tease out as much information as possible. In his view, we have a wealth of information in our older people or folks who have gone through amazing journeys that needs to be captured. I have recently seen similar efforts with young volunteers who help older people capture their histories.

Our blogging friend Z who lives in Ecuador captures these stories on a daily basis with her pictures and interactions. ** I often find myself gravitating toward the people she meets, their faces, their postures, their livelihoods and their interactions. This is where life exists. It is not the air-brushed, heavily made-up, well-dressed, and polished images we find online or in photo shoots. Life lives in the one who gets up everyday to feed their children, their animals and themselves and goes to work.

And, it has been that way for ages. For every Catherine the Great, there are millions of Joe Schmo’s. We Joes and Josephine’s are the ones who ran across open fields in Poland to escape Nazi shooters with our child holding onto our back. We are the ones that climbed walls to get out of danger when extremists came to our village. We are the ones who hid people in our basement to escape persecution. We are the ones who boycotted buses in Alabama and walked to work. We are the ones who journeyed to America with nothing but a suitcase, our family and our dreams for a better life.

And, we are the ones who with quiet dignity do jobs that we don’t love every day, then get up the next day and do them again. We are the ones who parent our children, sometimes without a partner, and then work a full-time job or several part-time ones to make ends meet. We are the ones who forego taking our medicine, so a child can be clothed and fed or maybe get that used musical instrument, soccer shoes or ballet tutu.

Hero, star and superstar are words that are thrown around much too often. Very few people who are given that term are truly worthy of the label. To me, the real heroes of the world go about their business in quiet fashion. They are the unsung heroes, who I have only touched on above. They are the bottom-up history of the world. Let’s find out more from them, while we can. Talk to a relative, friend or someone who interests you and learn more about how they arrived to this point. Your ancestry is in the stories, not the lineage.

Have a peaceful rest of your year and best wishes for 2015.

* Here is the link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Isay

** Here is a link to Z’s blog: http://playamart.wordpress.com/

 

 

The Best Teammate Ever

With the NCAA basketball tourney in high gear and the NBA playoffs nearing, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight the best team player of any sport. With all due respect to my hockey friends, he is not Henri Richard of the famous Montreal Canadiens, who some would argue could lay such claim. The best teammate ever happens to have been quite successful as a college and pro basketball player, so it is apropos to mention him here and now.

His college team won two national championships, his pro team won eleven NBA championships and his Olympic team won the Gold Medal, as well. Who is he? He is not Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Larry Bird, although he is appearing in two commercials during the NCAA tournament with the latter three around the kids pre-school desk and the guy who usually does this funny banter with kids. His name is Bill Russell and he is remembered as the legendary center for the Boston Celtics and University of San Francisco.

Bill’s teams were good for two primary reasons. First and foremost, he was on the team. He had personal achievements winning the Most Valuable Player award five times and was a twelve time all-star. He is in the Hall of Fame and was voted one of the 50 Best NBA Players of all time. Yet, by his own admission, Wilt Chamberlain was a better basketball player. Wilt, though, did not win that many championships or have near the same amount of team success.

Second, his team won because Russell understood the concept of team play better than anyone. You see Russell’s forte was not scoring, although he did do some of that averaging 15 points a game as a pro. His forte was doing those things on the court which involved effort and intellect as much as skill. He was a voracious rebounder averaging an unheard of today 22.5 rebound per game. Rebounding requires calculation of where the shot was taken and where a missed shot might carom or bounce. Most basketball shots taken from one side of the basketball court, when missed, will carom to the other side. Then, it requires a huge amount of effort to get to the best position where the missed shot might go and use your body to block out an opponent, another lost art in the US.

By rebounding well, the opponent gets fewer shots and your team gets more shots. An explanation of basketball success doesn’t get any easier than that. Yet, he also was one of the best shot blockers the game has ever known. Shotblocking is timing as well as skill, but he made it a craft. But, the one thing he did that is rarely done when you watch the tournament games today, is Russell blocked the shot to a teammate. This normally started a fast break which has a higher chance of scoring than a set play. He was known to have said, “If I block it out-of-bounds, it may look more theatrical, but we still don’t have the ball.” When you watch the Final Four and the NBA playoffs, see how many times the blocker just blocks it out-of-bounds.

The third thing he did well in addition to the shot blocking was play good defense. Offense is more fun to play. Defense requires an effort. Offense is what the fans want to see, but defense wins championships. The shot blocking was his signature trait, but he also did other things to make his team defend the goal  better. He worked hard to disrupt the other teams’ offense through disrupting passes and shots.

The final thing he did well is his passing. He knew his teammates could shoot better than he did, so he would get them the ball passing out of the post position. Plus, by having his teammates involved, he knew they would pick up their defense. Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said this the other day, “I know I am not supposed to say this, but when a player is scoring and involved in the offense, he usually plays better defense as a result.” Having been around basketball for years, I have never heard a coach utter those words, yet I think Russell knew this intuitively.

Russell actually was a player coach his last three seasons as a Boston Celtics and his team won each year. But, when he kept coaching after he retired, his teams did not win like before. The key reason was Bill Russell was not playing. He brought all of the above to the court – intellect, effort, skill and energy. But he brought one other thing. His desire to win. Before almost every big game, Russell could be heard in the locker restroom throwing up. His teammates knew that if Russell was throwing up because he was nervous, they were going to win. And, they did.

One final thought about Bill Russell, which I also admire him for, is his activism. He was very intelligent and he knew that African-Americans were continuing to be maltreated in the 1960s. He joined together with Jim Brown, the superb NFL football star, and others to make a statement because their athletic prowess and notoriety gave them a platform to be heard. They did what people like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan have not done because of fear of lost endorsements. They stood up for African-Americans who were being disenfranchised and said this is not right.They convinced Muhammad Ali to take part as well. This needs to be done today, but the players and stars of the same ilk will not stand up for causes like these men did.

I think his activism shows what kind of man and teammate Bill Russell is and was. In today’s me first world where statistics mean more than they should with fantasy leagues and big contracts, winning year-in, year-out with energy and effort, seems to be a lost art. And, with fourteen championships to his teams’ credit, win they did. Maybe that is why we may never see another Bill Russell. The team has to be bigger than the player.

Black History Month – A Lesson for the GOP

When I was in Chicago in late November, I had the pleasure of hearing an interview with Marshall Chess, the son of one of the founders of Chess Records which produced some of the greatest blues artists anywhere – Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Howlin Wolf, Etta James and Chuck Berry are some names that are recognizable. I was captivated by the whole interview, but something said by Marshall struck me. He made the comment “it took British musicians to introduce white audiences in America to the blues’ legends.” He would routinely take calls from Mick Jaggar and Keith Richards and eventually would be asked by them to manage Rolling Stones Records in the late 1960s. More on this later.

While thinking of this, I was reminded of the courage that Jackie Robinson had to break the color barrier in Major League baseball. For those who follow baseball, Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League in baseball. The American League had the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, two historically successful teams which were among the slowest to integrate. And, it eventually caught up with them. Why do I say this? It may surprise many, but the Red Sox had scouted and could have signed two ball players that would go on to change history in the game of baseball. You see the Red Sox could have signed both Henry Aaron and Willie Mays to their team and passed because they did not want to change with the times. Aaron would eventually break Babe Ruth’s home run record, but was much more than a power hitter as a player. Mays is probably the greatest baseball player that many of us will have ever seen play. I cannot think of a current player who can sustain the level of excellence that Mays did.

What do either of these stories have to do with the Republican Party, known as the Grand Old Party (GOP)? The GOP is not a very diverse political party and it is causing them some concerns. It should. The GOP has remained the party of old white men and they have been throwing themes around for the past few years of “taking our country back.” According to no less an authority than former Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell, GOP leaders must erase “the dark veil of intolerance.” And, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal noted last week “we have to stop being the stupid party.” Yet, the party looks only to change tactics rather than do some serious soul-searching.

These two Black History month stories, though, offer lessons of what can happen if you do not adjust with the times. As for Marshall Chess’ point, white audiences were exposed to white versions of the blues, but not the blues artists themselves. Elvis Pressley and Jerry Lee Lewis were huge sensations, but the artists that spawned their interest had to stand in the shadows. Since I am from the south, African-American artists were not permitted on white stations. Johnny Rivers made a career of singing songs written and performed by African-American artists. In the early to mid-1960s this began to change with something called “The British Invasion.”

The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton and his various bands (Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominoes) were all heavily influenced by American blues artists. As a result, Clapton, Richards, Jaggar, George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Steve Winwood, Jimmy Page, etc. all had a healthy foundation of blues music. So, while American pop music got very stale after Pressley started being a movie star, Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin – a PR disaster that destroyed his career, and Buddy Holly was killed, this new British sound was a force to be reckoned with. It was innovative and different to white American audiences.  In other words, American pop music was not changing with the times and it took others to show them the way. Others that were not as constrained with bigotry as we were in America.

The same held true for the Red Sox, Yankees and other American League teams. While these teams stayed less or not integrated, the National League teams signed eventual Hall of Fame African-American stars such as Aaron, Mays, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Roy Campanella, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Orlanda Cepeda, Roberto Clemente and Don Newcombe. It was not ironic that the National League dominated the All Star games which annually pitted the two leagues against each other from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s. Once the Yankees great star, Mickey Mantle, faded in the mid-1960s, the Yankees were largely uncompetitive for several years. In other words, the American League stood still and did not adapt to the times until they got tired of being bested by the National League. Someone else had to show them the way.

The GOP is in this same position. They can choose to change tactics or they can look to see if their platform meets the needs of the changing demographics. If they do not do the latter, they are destined to become a minority party for years. The immigration issue is one of several. They cannot go on denying the truth in various issues such as man-influenced global warming, the huge success of the elite class at the expense of other Americans, gays and lesbians deserve equal rights and the need for access to healthcare to moderate costs and keep people from becoming bankrupt when a healthcare crisis occurs. If the GOP does not learn the lessons of the American League or American pop music, it will take others to show them the error of their ways.

Failure is a great teacher, but you have to be willing to learn from it. Is the GOP up to learning the lessons of Black History?