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The Exhilaration of the Quotable (and the Explainable)

Every once in a while there’s an author quote that I come across that really hits me; sometimes it’s just pure genius and is poignant regardless of time and situation, and some quotes seem to connect so perfectly with current events that it’s hard to believe they were written twenty, thirty, sixty, or even two hundred years ago.
And sometimes I’m able to connect that quote with an image that perfectly captures how I felt when I first read it. It could be Dalton Trumbo’s ‘See How I Sing‘, or Nuruddin Farah’s ‘Time As a Cloth‘, and there are many more.

Poul Anderson exhilaration of the explainable gas station burrito society6 But yesterday I was brought back to this quote by Poul Anderson, an author I had never heard of before a year ago, and this image I created to accompany it. The image turned out pretty well considering the limits of the app I was working with; as much as there is to love about Adobe Spark for what I do, the number of clip art options are overwhelming and difficult to search through. But for all the difficultly I ran into, it turned out exactly how I’d imagined it.

So of course I had to put it on a tote bag—because capitalism. Now through November 29th you can get 30% off + free shipping from Gas Station Burrito at Society6!

Poul Anderson exhilaration of the explainable gas station burrito society6

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.

Considering Potential, Adversity and Alice Childress

I came across a post the other day referencing the Biosphere 2 project and a surprising discovery scientists made during the experiment. Within the completely perfect and balanced contained world of the biosphere the trees appeared healthy and thriving but none would grow to maturity. Before they could reach maturity however, the trees would topple over.

The scientists realized that within the biosphere there was no wind, there was no pressure or adversity exerted in the trees. They grew without resistance, without hardship, without adversity. The easy explanation is that the wind forced the trees to grow stronger, deeper roots to fight the outward forces of nature and their surroundings, but the truth goes far deeper than that.

It was more than strong roots the trees needed to rely on and develop, it was a tougher skin. There is a layer of wood known as reaction wood, or stress wood, that the biosphere trees were not developing. This layer allows the trees to adapt and to branch out in directions and at angles that would otherwise not be structurally sound in order to find the sunlight and other resources they need. In a perfect world they didn’t need that stronger layer, that muscle and fortitude. They grew fast and straight and collapsed under their own weight, too weak to maintain themselves because they had never faced any adversity, had never had to fight. They could never reach their true potential because they had never been challenged to do so.

I was reminded of this a few days later when lookin through my materials on Alice Childress, an author, playwright, actress and woman of color who worked fiercely for four decades in theater and on Broadway addressing social issues through her work during a time when she was denied basic civil rights. She began her career in 1949, writing and starring in the one act play, ‘Florence’ which touched in many of the themes that would define her career and the social causes she would fight for; the empowerment of black women, interracial politics, working-class life.

“My writing attempts to interpret the ‘ordinary’,” she said, “because they are not ordinary. Each human is uniquely different. Like snowflakes, the human pattern is never cast twice. We are uncommonly and marvellously intricate in thought and action, our problems are most complex and, too often, silently borne.”

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