Black Bodies Matter

During an eventful appearance at Boston College a while back, Ta-Nehisi Coates told the story of why he wrote the bestseller Between the World and Me. It is a slim volume—a meditation on what it means to be Black in America, framed as a letter to Coates’s 15-year-old son, Samori. Throughout the long evening, his tone was passionate but conversational, with not a whiff of preachiness. “The kind of oppression that black people feel in this country is very, very physical. It’s about people taking possession of your body.”

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“All You Have is Your Imagination and Your Feeling”

On an early spring day, students had filled a classroom at Boston College and were settling into light chatter when, a little after noon, English professor Elizabeth Graver came briskly into the room, accompanied by a svelte woman dressed in black and wearing a deep-red head wrap. Graver told the class that her guest—British novelist, essayist, and short story writer Zadie Smith—had just arrived from New York, where she is on the faculty of the creative writing program at New York University. Graver added unceremoniously, “Take it away, guys.”

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Why Your Neighborhood is Still Segregated

Residential segregation by law ended gradually in America, notably with the 1968 Fair Housing Act; it took Congress another two decades to build enforcement mechanisms into the statute. But Richard Rothstein makes a sobering case that the damage was done—permanently. Today, Black families have barely one-tenth the wealth of their white counterparts. Rothstein says the vast divide is “entirely attributable to unconstitutional federal housing policy practiced in the mid-20th century.”

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How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers (Wasn’t Even Hard)

A foreign power stealthily intervenes in another nation’s affairs, manipulating media and disseminating propaganda to help sway an election. Joel Whitney has spent years looking into underhanded activity of that sort, but his subject is not Vladimir Putin’s Russia and its incursions into election processes in the United States and Europe. Whitney points the flashlight at the U.S. government in his book Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers.

Whitney writes how the Central Intelligence Agency covertly spawned a worldwide network of media outlets, especially literary magazines, during the Cold War. The CIA used these outlets to further its geopolitical goals—an exercise in cultural diplomacy, or “soft power” in today’s lingo, as distinct from the agency’s hard power that included assassinations, coups, election-related bribery, and other intrusions. The general outlines of this story have been known for decades, but Whitney is clearly hoping to amp up the indignation over what he considers an historic disgrace. In particular the “literary CIA,” as he styles it, blurred the lines “between criticism, journalism, and the needs of the state; between aesthetics and the political requirements of the Cold War.”

Read more in History News Network

True to the Story It Needs to Tell

“Selma” the movie made a splash when it first appeared on the big screen, causing ripples of controversy—much of it centering on portrayals of head butting between Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Baines Johnson. So, I was a little surprised when I finally saw the movie, on an MLK Day weekend. As I quickly learned, “Selma” is not essentially about MLK or LBJ. It is, of all things, about Selma.

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Between God and Ground Balls

In honor of the delayed arrival of Major League Baseball—a reprised article about a hustling young Jesuit and his ministry on the diamond:

On a picture-perfect day for baseball, a 30-something man sporting dark sunglasses is standing in a ground-level dugout, calling out to players in the field. “Okay kid, you got this,” he says to the pitcher for the Boston College Eagles at the start of a home game. After a three-up, three-down inning, he strides onto the grass and greets the young men as they return to the dugout, giving them fist-pumps.

It’s what you’d expect from a member of the coaching staff. But Fr. Christopher Calderón, a newly ordained Jesuit priest, isn’t just any member of the staff. Donning a Roman collar as well as a team cap, he helps the players not with their slugging but their spirits, not with their fielding but their faith.

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The Song of Mary

The setting is Nazareth, in ancient Palestine. A devout Jew, Mary is a rural peasant — “young, female, a member of a people subjected to economic exploitation by powerful ruling groups,” renowned Catholic theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson writes in her book about Mary, Truly Our Sister. Like other Jewish girls of her class, she’s most likely illiterate, though she knows the Hebrew Scriptures from oral tradition. Those girls were typically married off at around 13 years old, bearing children soon enough, and there’s no reason to believe Mary was any different. In the New Testament’s Gospel of Luke, she suddenly finds herself pregnant, and Joseph, the carpenter with whom she’s betrothed in an arranged marriage, knows he’s not the father.

See the article in public radio’s Cognoscenti blog …

Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland

Through the centuries they have been known as “cretins,” “simpletons,” “morons,” “idiots,” “imbeciles” and “feebleminded,” among other classifications. These labels at various times have enjoyed the status of proper names, among them the Massachusetts School for Idiotic Children and Youth (a progressive organization founded in the mid-19th century) and the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded (which followed in the early 20th century).

Dan Barry’s disturbing yet beautifully told story begins in the mid-1960s, when a few dozen men transported from Abilene, Texas, are called “mentally retarded.”

See the review in America magazine …

The Irish and Italians: A Love-Hate Story (Or a Hate Story that Became a Love Story)

Growing up in Brooklyn, I belonged to a predominantly Sicilian parish headed by a priest with silvery hair and wooly white eyebrows, whose surname was Riley. The pastor’s homilies often involved itemizations of parish expenses, and some say that on one occasion he held up a few fronds of the kind distributed freely on Palm Sunday and declared, “Do you think these grow on trees?” When he was not preaching about money, the Irish priest was, more subtly, admonishing the Italians.

Review of an engrossing history crafted by Paul Moses …