National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, Maryland

This eclectic museum brings the African American experience to life, but some sections are definitely not suitable for children.

As a fan of both history and wax museums, I was thrilled to discover this museum in Baltimore’s struggling northeastern neighborhood of Oliver. The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum features over 150 life-sized wax figures representing a range of personalities from African American history, as well as a few ancient ones as well.

The museum’s depiction of ancient history is, for lack of a better word, imaginative. In the entryway, a large figure of a dark-skinned Hannibal the Great sits on a war elephant. Hannibal, a Carthaginian leader who fought the Romans circa 218 BC, was ethnically Phoenician, not from Sub-Saharan Africa. Likewise, the museum depicts Egyptian pharaohs as black when they were actually Middle Eastern in origin. Some even had red hair.

Perhaps the most controversial exhibits have to do with the Atlantic slave trade, lynching, and racism. It’s estimated 12 to 12.8 million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic over a span of 400 years under horrible conditions. The wax exhibit leaves nothing to the imagination.

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Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York

This small historic site and museum in New York’s Finger Lakes region commemorates the birthplace of American feminism.

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In 1848, a large group of Quaker women gathered at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York for a three day convention aimed at discussing women’s rights. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was also in attendance and spoke at the convention. Only women were invited on the first day, but both men and women could attend the following days.

What resulted was the Declaration of Sentiments, a document advancing the cause of greater social, political, and religious rights for women. It was signed by 68 women and 32 men in attendance. It was considered quite radical at the time, and called for women’s suffrage as well as legal reforms making wives more independent from their husbands (in English common law, the practice of coverture meant a woman’s legal rights were subsumed by her husband).

This was the first of several early women’s rights conventions, and it is considered a landmark of First Wave Feminism, which focused on winning legal equality with men, particularly the right to vote. Today, the site is commemorated as Women’s Rights National Historical Park. The Wesleyan Methodist Chapel has been rebuilt on the foundation of the old, which had deteriorated over the past 160 years. A small but informative museum exploring the history of women’s activism in the United States is also on site.

Women’s Rights National Historical Park, at 136 Fall Street in Seneca Falls, New York, was established in 1980. It is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00pm, but closed on New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. Entrance to the museum is free. There is a small parking lot behind the visitor’s center, as well as street parking. Call (315) 568-2991 for more information.

Father Divine, Conspicuous Consumption, and Racial Harmony

During the Great Depression, “Father Divine” urged his followers to transcend race and poverty through the power of positive thinking and a shared banquet table.

In American culture, ideals of health and prosperity have long been intertwined with 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 during the 1930s a man appeared offering salvation through the act of eating.

George Baker, Jr., or “Father Divine”, professed himself to be God incarnate. He urged his followers to transcend race and poverty through the power of positive thinking. His message successfully crossed racial barriers because he appealed to cultural traditions common to all Americans, traditions like conspicuous consumption, Charismatic Christianity, and the Protestant work ethic.

As historian Jill Watts eloquently put it, he “provided a theology that promised a better life and a brighter future to anyone, regardless of economic status. Father Divine personified the Horatio Alger myth, and his success proved that even for blacks, America was a land of opportunity.”[1] Food, a symbol of prosperity, was the unifying commodity he used to actualize that myth.

The ready availability of food, dolled out by his hands, literally demonstrated that he could give his followers a piece of the American pie. He consciously used the act of sharing food between peoples―a long tradition in American history―to realize his dream of racial harmony. “I have a-plenty to eat, to drink and to wear, and I have plenty of automobiles to ride in; comfort and convenience for you and ME!” was a common boast, and promise, from Father Divine.[2]

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Father Divine: The Man Who Called Himself God

At a time when scarcity affected millions, one eccentric preacher offered men and women a taste of the American dream.

During the 1930s, a man appeared in America offering salvation through the simple 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. This eccentric preacher offered Americans, both black and white, rich and poor, hope that racial unity and personal perfection could be achieved through the union of religion and the dinner table.

Father Divine began life as George Baker, Jr. in the border state of Maryland less than fifteen years after the Civil War. His mother, Nancy, had been born a slave in the 1840s. Two Catholic masters owned her over the course of her life, Lemuel Clemens and Henry B. Waring. Both required that she attend the Catholic churches they had erected on their respective properties.

In 1864, when Maryland outlawed slavery, Nancy went into service as a maid and already had two daughters by unknown persons. She married a man named George Baker in the 1870s and the two moved into a ghetto outside of Rockville, Maryland known as ‘Monkey Run.’ George Baker, Jr. was born shortly after, in May 1879.[1] Nancy and her family attended Rockville’s Jerusalem Methodist Church, a separatist branch, where, according to historian Jill Watts, “inevitably, the intense spirituality and religious dedication of the African-American community left a deep impression on George.”[2]

His mother died when he was a young man. She was five feet tall and weighed four hundred and eighty pounds. A coffin had to be built inside their house and could only be removed after the doorway had been hastily expanded. Historian R. Marie Griffith theorized that Nancy’s extreme size, acquired after moving to Monkey Run, was a response to the oppressive conditions of slavery she had experienced as a young woman.

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Quills: A Poignant Civil Rights Allegory

Though historically inaccurate, this film effectively tackles issues of censorship and the limits of free expression.

Directed by Philip Kaufman, Quills (2000) is based on a play of the same name by Doug Wright. It is a quasi-historical movie about the infamous writer Marquis de Sade and his internment in Charenton asylum in post-revolutionary France. Though not financially successful, its performances, costumes, and sets won praise from critics and audiences alike.

At the Charenton Asylum, the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) has been under the care of Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), a liberal clergyman who encourages De Sade to write and produce plays, which are performed by the inmates at the asylum. Unbeknownst to him, De Sade has been sneaking out his manuscripts for publication with the help of laundress Madeleine (Kate Winslet). Scandalized, Emperor Napoleon orders Doctor Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to take over Charenton and reform its notorious inmate.

A battle of wills ensues between De Sade and Royer-Collard, with Abbe Coulmier and Madeleine caught in the middle. The more Royer-Collard tries to break De Sade, the more defiant and outlandish De Sade becomes. The inmate is determined to expose Royer-Collard’s hypocrisy, centered around his marriage to his much younger wife, Simone (Amelia Warner). Can Abbe Coulmier save De Sade’s soul (and his own) before it’s too late?

Quills is first and foremost an exploration of censorship and free expression. Are De Sade’s provocative stories harmless entertainment, or genuinely subversive and dangerous? Is De Sade a raving lunatic, or a martyr to the cause of free speech? It asks the audience to actively engage with the ethical and moral questions played out on screen.

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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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