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Woke Baby

April 21, 2022

One of the books in this batch bears this title, which its contents belie. But in getting and staying truly awake to what’s going on (and what’s gone on), you need to read broadly, and I think the books you see here—Woke Baby included—are helping me in that connection.

Man at Arms, by Steven Pressfield (W. W. Norton, 2021)

I used to read a lot more fiction than I do now (though a good deal of the non-fiction I do read, whether in books, blogs, or on-line periodicals, traffics in fictions).  As a kid, I spent hour after hour working through the Hardy Boys series; in high school, I loved Scott’s Ivanhoe, Hardy’s The Return of the Native, Orwell’s Animal Farm, and Dickens’s Great Expectations. In later years, I’ve inclined my eyes (e.g., James Lee Burke’s Dave “Robicheaux” series) and ears, as I’ve commuted with CD books (e.g., works David Baldacci and Lee Child), with special interest in detective mysteries. Many more novels I could name, but many, many more non-fiction books have preoccupied me.  

Still, a friend commended (and loaned) this book to me, noting that it concerned the intersection of first century Christians and the Roman military. The author, Steven Pressfield, is no stranger to “men at arms,” having served as a Marine. And his bona fides as an author extend to The Legend of Bagger Vance (made into a movie) and Gates of Fire (about the Spartans at Thermopylae [meaning “hot gates]); the book is used in classes at our military academies.

As for this book, I’m about 50 pages in. The Romans are after a “fugitive” working with the Apostle Paul. In a briefing, the garrison commander says, 

There are three types of Jews in this godforsaken country. Temple Jews, Zealots, and Messianics. The first can be bought off for riches or power, the second can be dealt with by force. The last resist everything. They cannot be suborned, coerced, or reasoned with. They occupy not this world but another. The man you will pursue is one of these.

The details of this historical novel have verisimilitude. The language is engaging.  I’ll press on.

The Faces of Five Decades: Selection from Fifty Years of The New Republic, 1914-1964, edited by Robert B. Luce (Simon and Schuster, 1964)

I suppose the essay is my favorite form of literature, and I love to find volumes such as this one, which offer “the best of” of a personality, era, or publication. Though The New Republic was cast as a “progressive” magazine at its founding in 1914, it took a conservative turn in the closing decades of the twentieth century. I was a happy subscriber for a number of those years, but with editorial changes at the top in this new century, I dropped it. 

This volume offers over a hundred articles, and I’ve been sampling them, looking forward to reading another dozen or so. I had to check out Francis Hackett’s (he the literary editor) take on Billy Sunday, March 20, 1915. He begins by admitting his prejudice: 

I imagined him as a ranting, screaming vulgarian, a mob orator who lashed himself and his audience into an ecstasy of cheap religious fervor, a sensationalist who sermons were fables in slang. I thought of him as vividly, torrentially abusive and I thought of his revival as an orgy in which hundreds of sinners ended by streaming in full view to the public mourners’ bench.

But he left with a different impression: “He was trim and clean-cut and swift. He was like a quintessentially slick salesman of his particular line of wares . . . He had at his fingertips all the selling points of Christ.” 

Of course, Hackett was not “susceptible” to Sunday’s gospel message, but the piece is a study in how the elite literati can get things wrong, but are also not immune to a measure of course correction if they’ll take the trouble to check things out.

In another piece, Pulitzer Prize winning poet Amy Lowell sized up “The New Manner in Modern Poetry” (modern, that is, in 1916 terms). I don’t read much poetry (except in the form of song lyrics) because so much of it is free verse. I appreciate a little in this format, e.g., “Fog” by Carl Sandburg, but give me rhyme first of all. I used to torment poetry majors at Northwestern in our church by reciting lines from Robert Service (“The Cremation of Sam McGee”), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (“Little Orphan Annie”), or Lord Byron (“She Walks in Beauty”), just to watch them cringe, since rhyming was so passé. With that background and tension, I find myself interested in poets’ account of their own work, and the work of other poets.

Lowell, says, “Egoism may be a crime in the world of morals, but in the world of the arts it is perfectly permissible. It makes very good and very interesting poetry. In mentioning it I am not condemning it, I am only labeling it.” And then, yes, “The poets of the ‘new manner’ have another distinguishing mark. They endeavor to write poetry in the syntax of prose.” Not so keen then on the construction of Rudyard Kipling’s “Gunga Din.”

The uniform ‘e wore

Was nothin’ much before,

An’ rather less that ‘arf o’ that be’ind,

For a piece o’twisty rag

An’ a goatskin water-bag

Was all the field-equipment ‘e could find.

Speaking of language, it was fun to read, in this book, of the slam-bang, cranky disposition of H. L. Mencken, as covered by Philip Littell: “Put cotton in your ears and listen to the noise of Mr. Mencken’s vocabulary: slobber, hocus-pocus, softies, popinjays, flapdoodle, flubdub, poppycock, balderdash, pish-posh, clapper-clawing, rumble-bumble, sissified.”

A Heap o’ Livin’ by Edgar A. Guest (Reilly & Lee, 1916).

Don’t know how I got this classic. The physical book is over a hundred years old, but still in good condition. And I found it to be a page-turner. Yes, I know that contemporary poets and those averse to sentimental verse will gag on Guest, but I’m low-rent enough to enjoy it. Problem is, when I started noting passages to include in this brief take, my list ran off the sticky note I was using, even when I wrote small. So anyway, here’s a little sampling:

First, for the poem from which the collection title is drawn, “Home”:

It takes a heap o’ living’ in a house t’ make it home,

A heap o’ sun an’ shadder, an’ ye sometimes have t’ roam

Afore ye really ‘preciate the things ye lef’ behind,

An’ hungr fer ‘em somehow, with ‘em allus on yer mind . . .

From “Be a Friend”:

 Be a friend. The pay is bigger

(Though not written by a figure)

Than is earned by people clever

In what’s merely self-endeavor.

And he could write with edge, as in “Success and Failure”:

I do not think all failure’s undeserved,

And all success is merely someone’s luck; . . .

Some men are down because they chose to shirk;

Some men are high because they did their work.

Alas, in “Faith,” he showed that he was not concerned with orthodoxy:

[I believe] That creeds are but colors, and no man has said

That God loves the yellow rose more than the red.

The Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Arkansas: How Protestant White Nationalism Came to Rule a State, by Kenneth C. Barnes (University of Arkansas Press, 2021)

This is one of those books where you scan the index to see what was going on in places you lived. I grew up in Arkadelphia, where my dad taught at Ouachita Baptist College/University. I see from the book that the first Arkadelphia KKK meeting was held in Clark County Court House, with 200 in attendance, but that they’d lost their charter for some reason by 1925; in El Dorado, where I pastored FBC (1983-1985), they raised money for the Elma Coble Comer Hospital, named after Grand Dragon Comer’s wife, but it never got built. It may surprise some that they announced that “patients would be received without  regard to race, creed, or color.” Up in North Little Rock, where my wife’s father was pastor of Park Hill Baptist Church, a dozen Klansmen, in full regalia, visited the Twin City pool hall and cigar stand on Main Street and denounced the establishment as “the haunt of bootleggers, vagrants, and other men of shady character.” Furthermore, they said they’d gotten word that the owner had arranged for two carloads of “women of loose morals” to move into local rooming houses. When all was said and done a week later, “Puss” Farabee was convicted of liquor charges and he put the pool hall up for sale.

Yes, I’m going to read this with great interest. 

Biography Today: Profiles of People of Interest to Young Readers,  Vol 20—2011, edited by Cherie D. Abbey (EBSCO, 2011) 

I got this book from the freebies shelf at the Brentwood library, one among a batch of their Biography Today volumes. Several weeks later, I was surprised to see a librarian pulling the remainders off the shelf, replacing them with other freebies. She explained that people didn’t seem to want them, given the ready availability of biographical info on the Internet, particularly Wikipedia (which I consult frequently). A shame I think. I love print books, and I read them with a pencil handy for erasable margin notes. A quick turn through this one turned up some items of interest.

I was gratified to see that the piece on Sarah Palin took pains to explain believers baptism by immersion:

If Chuck Heath helped his children to appreciate the wonders of the earth, their mother, Sally Heath, focused their attention in a different direction. Sarah and her siblings were all baptized in the Catholic church as infants. After settling in Alaska, their mother began taking them to a local evangelical church, the Wasilla Assembly of God. In that denomination, members are baptized after they knowingly accept Christ as their savior, rather than as infants, and Palin underwent this rite at age 12. Palin’s faith remained strong as she grew older, as was clear from the religious quote that accompanied her high school yearbook entry: “He is the Light and in the Light there is Life.”

Reading Mark Zuckerberg’s story, I learned that in 2003, Harvard blocked the Internet connection for an early site he’d developed on campus, saying that it was racist and sexist. He had to apologize to campus women’s groups. The offense was using his “Facemash” to show photos of two people at a time, side by side, and invite users to select the more attractive one. It went “viral,” and in just four hours, 450 visitors had voted on 22,000 photos. 

Of the 35 entries in this volume, I’m familiar with only 10 people. I know some athletes (Usain Bolt, Chris Bosh, Aaron Rodgers) and the country music folks (Miranda Lambert and Lady Antebellum), but I have no clue to the identity of most, e.g., Robert Bullard, Liu Xiaobo, and Esperanza Spalding. I guess I’ll browse on to get at least a minimal fix on their accomplishments. 

I noticed in the front that free copies have been sent to a dozen or so youth who recommended names for coverage, (hence the subtitle, Profiles of People of Interest to Young Readers). So a shout-out to Amie Flora, Knox Middle School, Knox, TN; Lynn Baroun, Reedsville Public Library, Cato, WI; Mimy  Poon, San Lorenzo, CA, and the others.

Lapham’s Quarterly: Friendship, Vol. XIV, No. 2, edited by Lewis Lapham (American Agora Foundation, 2021)

I got acquainted with Lewis Lapham when he was editor of Harper’s back in my Wheaton days. In recent years, I’ve picked up on his Lapham’s Quarterly, each issue devoted to a big topic. In addition to this one on friendship, I see on my shelf another twenty-five, devoted to such topics as intoxication, time, youth, comedy, fashion, luck, philanthropy, disaster, revolution, foreigners, and yes (in 2020) epidemic. 

This particular issue has over eighty selections on the topic, drawing from the written work of folks as varied as Mark Twain, Aristotle, Arthur Conan Doyle, Simone de Beauvoir, Shakespeare, Erasmus, Homer, Walt Whitman, and Immanuel Kant. And it’s rich with images crafted by a range of artists, e.g., El Greco, Grosz, Renoir, Brueghel the Elder, Cezanne, Bellows, and Hopper  as well as photographs, including those of sculpture and film stills. It’s pretty overwhelming. So you pick and choose, and I first picked and chose the C. S. Lewis excerpt from The Four Loves (1960), where he is discussing one of the four, philia. He observes, 

Friendship is born at the moment when one man says to another, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .” But the common taste or vision or point of view which is thus discovered need not always be a nice one. For such a moment art or philosophy or an advance in religion or morals might well take their rise; but why not also torture, cannibalism, or human sacrifice?

In addition to the lengthier quotes (typically a page or two or three), you find “one liners” in italics inserted throughout the book—“The bird, a nest; the spider, a web; man, friendship” (William Blake, 1790); “Under the magnetism of friendship, the modest man becomes bold, the shy confident, the lazy active, or the impetuous prudent and peaceful” (William Makepeace Thackery, 1848); “One’s friends are that part of the human race with which one can be human” (George Santayana, 1914); “There is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 1943); “Whatever is the number of comrades one has acquired, so many are the eyes with which he can see what he wishes, so many the ears with which he can hear what he needs to hear, so many the minds with which he can take thought concerning his welfare” (Chrysostom, 100). 

Woke Baby, by Mahogany L. Browne, Illustrated by Theodore Taylor III (Roaring Brook, 2018):

This year’s ETS theme is “Holiness,” so I thought I’d submit a proposal on “The Unholiness of Wokeness.” I bought and checked out some books to supplement what I already had on wokeness, and one of the new ones is this “darling” volume, with about 100 words total. Here’s the proposal’s paragraph that mentions it: 

The literature is vast, including secular (Kendi and DiAngelo ) and clerical (Mason and Tisby) enthusiasts for wokeness, as well as gainsayers, both outside (McWhorter and Ramaswamy) and inside (Strachan and Kliewer) the church. I’ll draw on it for definitions and illustrations. And I’ll sample the children’s books designed to nurture the “Antiracist Baby” (Kendi) and the “Woke Baby” (Browne). The latter pictures an infant whose upraised, clinched fists are called “panther’s paws” and whose crawling toward a toy is celebrated with the declaration, “You stop for no one.”

Journey of Hope: The Back-to-Africa Movement in Arkansas in the Late 1800s, by Kenneth C. Barnes (University of North Carolina Press, 2004)

Having just seen, in a Baltimore museum, a photo of some of Marcus Garvey’s followers (he of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, ascendant in 1920s), I did a little web research and came across this book. Raised in Arkansas, I was especially intrigued by the title. In the introduction, I was surprised to come across the name of William Coppinger, a white Quaker who was a major figure in an earlier “back to Africa” organization, the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816. The group’s overseas work focused on Liberia, whose capital, Monrovia, was named for the US president who took up this cause, James Monroe. 

I was intrigued by the name ‘Coppinger,’ which is connected to my own ‘Coppenger.’ (Perhaps my ancestors were too lazy to dot the ‘i’.) The best we can tell, the Coppinger/Coppenger surname comes from a Danish word for merchant, but there are other theories. It seems that these guys were uninvited guests from Scandinavia (aka Vikings) to England and Ireland. And the name sounds somewhat Germanic (like Schlesinger and Kissinger). A pedestrian lane between Williams and Clarendon Streets in Dublin is named Coppinger Row (Rea Coppinger) seemed anomalous. (We took a family photo under the street sign back in 2000.) And there’s a Coppinger castle (in ruins) near Cork.

Well, enough of that. Back to William Coppenger. As you might imagine, the work of ACS was controversial, opposed by a good many freed slaves who didn’t care to return to Africa as well as the abolitionist whites who deplored the enthusiastic support of fellow whites who wanted to rid North America of these African-Americans. But Coppinger comes off well: 


By 1864, he became corresponding secretary of the ACS and devoted the rest of his life, until his death in 1892, to the work of Liberia emigration. He single-handedly administered the ACS’s dwindling resources, edited the society’s quarterly journal, the African Repository, corresponded with the people who desired to resettle in Liberia, and made the arrangements for those accepted for emigration. A dedicated, humble, self-effacing man, Coppinger appeared to believe sincerely that freed people of the American South could better their lives through emigration to Liberia, and he worked tirelessly to that end. No longer a big-budget institution, the American Colonization Society had become virtually a one-man show.

Of course, there were always blacks who were keen to avail themselves of the ACS’s program. For instance, in 1877, about a hundred black delegates and observers met at Third Baptist Church in Helena, Arkansas, with eye toward moving to Liberia. There they passed a resolution, that reads thus:

That we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And WHEREAS, In the United States of North America many of our people have been debarred by law from the rights and privileges of freemen, and even now public sentiment—more powerful than law—frowns us down. We are made a separate and distinct class, and against us many avenues to improvement and eminence are effectually closed. Strangers from all lands, of a color different from ours, are preferred before us. Therefore, Resolved, That we continue to seek an asylum from this deep degradation by going to Liberia, on the western coast of Africa, where we will be permitted to more fully exercise and improve those faculties which impart to man his dignity, and to six evince to all who despise, ridicule and oppress our race, that we possess with them a common nature, and are susceptible of equal refinement and equal advancement in all that dignifies man, and that we are capable of self-government.