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History, Podcasts and the Craft of the Metanarrative

Episode seven of “The Magnus Archives” has been one of my favorites, weaving together the horror of war, historical figures and folklore in a tragic haunting manner.

Set during World War I, “The Piper” tells of the narrator’s experience with Wilfred Owen, who was an English poet and soldier. He was one of the leading poets of the First World War, writing on the horrors of trenches and gas warfare. His poem “Dulce et decorum est” condemns the rallying cry that “it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”

Owen was killed in action during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice, which is fictionalized in the archive statement in this episode along with the calling of the Pied Piper as almost a god of death who stalked the battlefields. It is said that his mother received word of his death while the bells of the nearby church tolled for the end of the war.

I haven’t read very much of Owen’s poetry but this episode did a great job capturing the bleakness and horror of which he wrote.

“The Magnus Archives” is not a new podcast, but while I may be four years and about 180 episodes behind, just in case I wasn’t the last person to ever hear of it, I wanted to share how creepy, thought provoking and thoroughly enjoyable the show has been.

I hope more of the episodes begin to play with historical events or figures as connections between archive statements and subjects begin to appear as this episode was one of their best. From a pure entertainment standpoint, this podcast has been great, but even more than that, the structure of it and the storytelling had been excellent with a fine balance between the individual stories and the connecting story arcs.

Definitely worth checking out as much as a short story anthology as a lesson in crafting narratives.



A Tragedy Recreated: Reading “Clap When You Land”

As I was reading the last few chapters of “Clap When You Land” news broke of a horrible plane crash in Pakistan that I can’t help but find similar to the crash that acts as a catalyst in Elizabeth Acevedo’s novel.

The crash that inspired Acevedo was Flight 587, which due to pilot error and mechanical failure, crashed in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens shortly after take off.

The flight was en route to the capital of the Dominican Republic, and as Acevedo writes in her author’s notes at the end of the novel, ninety percent of the passengers were of Dominican descent, many of whom were returning home. She shares her personal experience as a young girl as the New York Dominican community was shattered.

Twenty years later, Acevedo was able to use that tragedy and the stories from her community that came out of the event to craft a poetic novel of family, of resilience and the strength that can be found when one is able to meet their history head on, even if in grief or anger or betrayal, and make it their own.

Now, in a city on the other side of the world, another plane destined for another capital city has crashed into a heavily populated area. Mechanical failure is again seemingly to blame, with reports of malfunctioning landing gear preventing a safe landing at the nearby airport.

But that certainly won’t comfort the families of the 99 people on board or the dozens believed to have been killed on the ground. Families who, like Acevedo’s main characters, will oscillate between denial and hope and heartbreaking grief in the weeks ahead.

One further tragedy of Flight 587 is how it was overshadowed by 9/11 as it occurred two months and one day after that event. When the cause of the crash was ruled pilot error and not terrorism the story seemed to be abandoned by the media and many of us not affected by it probably have little or no memory of it even happening.

I would hope that our memory of Flight PK8303, overshadowed this time by a global pandemic, is not so short as it was in 2001. But as Acevedo proves by so powerfully and poetically capturing the dynamic and turbulent grieving process of her characters, and her own memories and experiences two decades ago, there will always be those who remember, who transform their memory and heartbreak into something tangible and shareable, and in doing so welcome those of us not touched directly by tragedy into their community.

The Almost Accurate History of American Literature

From William Wells Brown to Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon—meet the first African American authors in reverse.

If you follow @gasstation_b on Instagram you may have seen a quote recently from William Wells Brown to commemorate his death on November 6, 1884. I also mentioned that with the publication of his novel “Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States” in 1853 he became the first African American author to be published in the United States.

And that’s almost accurate.

If you’re not familiar with the novel, it follows Clotel and her sister, fictional slave daughters of Thomas Jefferson and explores the destructive effects of slavery in the United States on African-American families, the difficult lives of American mulattoes or mixed-race people, and the degraded and immoral condition of the relation of master and slave. Its general premise pulls from the common knowledge of the time that Jefferson had fathered several children by his slave Sally Hemings (herself believed to be the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife).

A short time after posting that quote from Brown I came across a post from @andresawilson of the Phillis Wheatley monument that is part of the Boston Women’s Memorial. It’s located between Fairfield Street and Gloucester Street on Commonwealth Avenue, if you’re in the neighborhood and have a thing for literature, history or even just statues.

I mention this since Phillis Wheatley is also commonly given the distinction of being the first African American author to be published, with her book, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” having been published September 1, 1773.

And that’s almost accurate.

Now, I know you might want to argue that since Wheatley’s book of poetry predates the founding of the United States, Wells earns the distinction instead of Wheatley, because semantics—but don’t be that guy.

Wheatley was a fascinating historical figure and gifted writer, as was Wells. Although separated by decades—Wheatley died thirty years before Brown was born—both writers were former slaves and gave an unprecedented voice to their experiences. Their respective works were widely read and celebrated with even George Washington said to have been a fan of Wheatley’s work, and they served to inspire other artists and writers of their time.

And also neither of them was the first African American author to be published.

After all that misinformation the distinction truly goes to Jupiter Hammon, who’s poem “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries” was published as a broadside in 1760.

Jupiter Hammon

Hammon, by the way, was quite a fan of Wheatley’s work when she became the first African American woman to be published, and his second published work was a poem titled, “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley”. Hammon would die nearly fifty years before William Wells Brown would become the first African American to publish a novel, but he probably would have written a poem about it if he’d still been around.

Regardless of who holds the title of first published African American author, all three of these literary figures, and the many who followed who were inspired by their work, should be celebrated for their lasting contributions to literature and history.

That, at least, is accurate.

BlackPast

BlackPast is dedicated to providing a global audience with reliable and accurate information on the history of African America and of people of African ancestry around the world. We aim to promote greater understanding through this knowledge to generate constructive change in our society.

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