Feasting at God’s Table

Father Divine, Conspicuous Consumption & Racial Harmony

Father_Divine_02
George Baker, Jr., “Father Divine”

In American culture, health and prosperity has long been wedded to the consumption of food. At the dawn of the twentieth century, it was the ability to eat what one wanted and when that defined an American family’s assent into the growing middle class. It was no accident that there appeared in America during the 1920s a man who offered salvation through the act of eating. Father Divine, professing himself to be God incarnate, urged his followers to transcend race and poverty through the power of positive thinking. His message crossed racial lines because he appealed to shared traditions in American culture, traditions like conspicuous consumption, Charismatic Christianity, and the Protestant work ethic.

Father Divine’s movement was at its height during the Great Depression. At a time when scarcity affected millions, this eccentric preacher offered men and women a taste of the American dream―for the price of personal sacrifice and loyalty. He provided Americans across the country, both black and white, rich and poor, the perfect confluence of food, religion, and spectacle to distract them from the harsh realities of everyday life. He offered hope that racial unity and personal perfection could be achieved through the union of religion and the dinner table.

The Importance of Food in America

Americans have always given special significance to food and drink. When the first European colonists arrived in North America they encountered a land teeming with wildlife. At Plymouth Colony in 1621, a storm left the beach covered with piles of lobsters two feet high. “They were so plentiful and so easily gathered that they were considered fit only for the poor,” Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemont explained in Eating in America. The storm left pools of crabs all along the shores of Virginia. Commenting on the abundance of fish at Jamestown, Captain John Smith wrote, “we tooke more in owne hour than we could eate in a day.” The colonists wondered at the size of the salmon, strawberries, and lobsters in the New World, and the Pilgrims, finding the luxury of clams and mussels tempered by their abundance, fed them to hogs.[1]

With origins in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the act of breaking bread with friends and neighbors had long been ingrained in religious ritual. Therefore, it was a feast the Pilgrims shared with the Wampanoags after their first arduous winter in New England, which eventually inspired the creation of a national holiday, Thanksgiving, centered around the consumption of large quantities of food. John Smith celebrated his first Christmas in the New World around the dinner table with the Powhatans and noted, “we were never more merry nor fed on more plenty of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild fowle and good bread, nor ever had better fires in England.”[2]

A hundred years later, the American colonists placed food and drink high on their list of grievances with the motherland. The Tea Act of 1773 precipitated the infamous Boston Tea Party, in which fifty angry colonists disguised as Native Americans dumped 90,000 pounds of tea into Boston Harbor. Under the stifling economics of mercantilism, tea had become a symbol of British rule. The British used excessive taxes as a weapon against colonial merchant-agitators like John Hancock, who customs officials accused of smuggling Madeira; a type of fortified wine.

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Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute

Located at 310 Genesee Street in Utica, New York, the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute is an enjoyable art museum with several notable pieces, including a Jackson Pollock, Salvador Dalí, and Picasso. It also has a fine collection of 19th-Century American painting and sculpture, as well as an annex showcasing the 19th-Century home of James and Helen Williams, “Fountain Elms”. I’m not a fan of modern art, but it was nice to see some pieces by prominent artists at a smaller art museum. Similar institutions would charge visitors to see such “high profile” pieces, but the M.W.P. Arts Institute only takes donations to see its general collection.

A special exhibition of Steve McCurry’s photographs will be on display until December 31st. Steve McCurry is best known for his haunting photograph of a young Afghan Girl with piercing green eyes taken in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1984.

The World through His Lens: Steve McCurry Photographs is an exhibition of more than 60 large-scale photographs by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry. It costs $10 general admission, or $5 for students, and is free to children under 12.

According to their website, “McCurry’s evocative images reveal collective human struggles and explore diverse societies across the boundaries of language and culture. Organized around universal themes of personal adornment, place, and ritual, exhibition will include unforgettable images from across six continents and spanning ancient traditions, international conflict, and vanishing cultures.”

This a unique opportunity to see his photographs up close, as the M.W.P. Arts Institute is the only venue for this exhibition.

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The Ruins of Millville and Charleston, Arizona

Crumbling stone walls are all that remain of these twin boom towns on the San Pedro River.

  • Millville and Charleston were home to some of the Wild West’s most notorious figures.
  • From 1881 to 1882, mines near these towns processed almost $1.4 million in silver.
  • During WW2, the U.S. Army used the ruins of Charleston to train combat troops.

In their heyday, the dual towns of Millville and Charleston in southeastern Arizona had a lawless reputation. Located on opposite sides of the San Pedro River, about nine miles southwest of Tombstone, Millville and Charleston were home to some of the Wild West’s most notorious figures. Outlaw Frank Stilwell, for example, once owned a saloon in Charleston.

Stilwell was a deputy sheriff in Tombstone, Arizona for Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan and was suspected of killing Morgan Earp on March 18, 1882. Two days later, Wyatt Earp gunned down Stilwell in a Tucson train yard. The Clanton Gang, infamous for their participation in the gunfight at the OK Corral, lived on a ranch five miles south of Charleston.

At its peak, Charleston was home to nearly 400 people. It had a post office, four restaurants, a school, a church, a drugstore, two blacksmiths, two livery stables, two butcher shops, two bakeries, a hotel, five general stores, a jewelry shop, a brickyard, a brewery, and at least four saloons. It was mainly home to men who worked across the river at the silver mills in Millville.

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Colonial Intimacies: A Revealing Look at American Indian Marriage in New England

80140100390110lHow did Puritan missionaries affect Native American marriage practices in colonial New England? How did Native Americans react to these changes? These are the questions Ann Marie Plane seeks to answer in Colonial Intimacies: Indian Marriage in Early New England. From the diverse marriage practices of pre-1620, to Anglicized marriage of the late 1600s, to the partial reconstruction of “traditional” Indian marriage in the 1740s, American Indian practices were profoundly altered by Puritan evangelization and colonialism.

For American Indians living in New England, many aspects of their marriage practices changed, including polygamy and the distinction between elite and common marriages, divorce, the role of formal legal bodies, inheritance, notions of household, and even expected gender roles. By the time American Indians began to assert their independence by appealing to past notions of “traditional” marriage in a now English-dominated colony, it was difficult for them to determine what that looked like.

Ann Marie Plane cautiously explains there were no uniform practices among American Indian tribes, and that marriage practices were always in flux. She was able to find some generalities in primary sources, which were mainly generated by early explorers and missionaries. Clan affiliation and kinship were more important to Native Americans than the bonds between a husband and wife. The nuclear family did not form the foundation of American Indian society like it did for the English. There was also a distinction between common and elite marriage. Elites (tribal leaders) practiced polygamy, while most Indians had only one partner. Because many extended family members lived in a residence together, children were raised communally. Also, sexual activity prior to marriage was not taboo as it was in Puritan society.

Plane distinguished four types of marriage in Native American society: some marriages were arranged in childhood and some in adulthood, but both of these involved a dowry paid to the woman’s family. In the third and fourth types, a man and woman chose to marry by either having a public ceremony or by simply taking up residence with each other.

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Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean

51znevyguwlHurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean, 1624-1783 by Matthew Mulcahy is a revealing look at an obscure topic. Historians rarely give weather such an in-depth treatment, so it’s interesting to see how these weather events affected Britain’s Caribbean colonies. Quite a bit, as it turns out. Hurricanes influenced colonists’ morale, their perception of the natural world, health, social order, and economy. Hurricanes were an ever-present disruptive force that compelled colonists, and plantation owners in particular, to change the way they did business. They also caused an untold amount of damage to crops, human capital (slaves), and shipping throughout the region. Colonists had to rebuild and replant after every major hurricane in addition to meeting their basic survival needs, which put strains on every other aspect of colonial life.

Hurricanes undermined colonists’ morale by challenging the concept of improvement and by testing their faith that they could “dominate and transform” nature. British colonists came to the Caribbean with a sense they were pursuing a divine mission, so when hurricanes destroyed everything they built, their faith was shaken. “The threat from hurricanes helped create a sense of fragility and uncertainty among colonists as the possibility of violent destruction and chaos hovered over the region each year,” Mulcahy argued.

Central to the colonists’ sense of themselves was the belief they were taming and improving nature, but the destruction wrought by hurricanes demonstrated that nature would not be so easily tamed. Ironically, some of the “improvements” made to the Caribbean islands, such as the cutting down of trees, made colonists more vulnerable to the storms. Taken together, these effects caused some colonists to question whether they could successfully transplant English life and culture to the Caribbean.

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Murder & Mayhem in Rockford a Macabre Look at Local History

Murder and Mayhem in RockfordMurder & Mayhem in Rockford by Kathi Kresol was published by the History Press (Arcadia Publishing) in November 2015. As a librarian and proprietor of Haunted Rockford Tours, Kresol is intimately familiar with the darker side of her city’s history. Now she has compiled some of those stories, both infamous and lesser-known, into a beautifully designed book sure to be enjoyed by readers interested in both history and true crime.

Murder & Mayhem in Rockford is divided into two parts, aptly named Murder and Mayhem. In part 1, Kresol examines nine murder cases, ranging from the death of a county sheriff to a man who murdered his own sisters. In part 2, she recounts five disasters, accidents, and fires, and ends with three chapters on Prohibition and the Mafia in Rockford from 1920 to 1933.

The events in the book take place in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with a few from the 1960s and ’70s. Kresol shows that Rockford has always been an immigrant melting pot, and despite its early industrial prosperity, has always been a violent place. The participants, victims and perpetrators alike, come to life on the pages.

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Snowden: A Masterfully-Crafted Fairytale

Last night, a handful of people and I watched the premier of Oliver Stone’s latest film, Snowden, a biopic about NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden. Oliver Stone, who turned 70 today, has written and directed over two dozen films, many of which are considered masterpieces. Alexander, Natural Born Killers, JFK, and Platoon are among my personal favorites. A live interview with Oliver Stone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who played Snowden), Shailene Woodley (who played Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills), and Edward Snowden himself followed the premier.

Oliver Stone is known for his politically-charged movies, and he doesn’t try to hide his biases. Snowden is an effective piece of propaganda. It’s nearly flawless as a film in terms of acting, editing, pacing, and dialog, but lacks the depth usually given to such a controversial subject.

First, here’s what Snowden gets right. Every actor and actress in this movie is on point. Every character feels genuine. Nicolas Cage, in top form, even makes a cameo as Hank Forrester, a (fictional) disillusioned CIA instructor. Shailene Woodley is perfect as Lindsay Mills, a free spirited, liberal photographer Snowden falls in love with.

One of the advantages of portraying a living person is you are able to study their mannerisms, tone, and expressions. Joseph Gordon-Levitt studied his subject well. Levitt, as Snowden, narrates throughout the entire film, as he is telling his story to a group of journalists, but the dialog is tight and the narration never gets bogged down in needless exposition.

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