Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Saturday, February 22, 2020

Black history is more than words

My granddaughter is black – adopted, from Ethiopia. She lives in a mostly white community and school system. 

            Her school, I gather, has largely ignored February as Black History Month. 

            Granted, Black History would not teach her much about Ethiopia. Or even about Africa. Black History, from what I’ve seen, deals mainly with American slavery. 

            National Geographic devoted its February cover story to the last slave ship to reach America. “In 1860, 52 years after the United States had banned the import of slaves,” it declared, “a wealthy landowner hired the schooner Clotildaand its captain to smuggle more than 100 captives into Alabama, a crime punishable by hanging. Once the nefarious mission was accomplished, the ship was set ablaze to destroy the evidence. 

            “The captives were the last of an estimated 307,000 Africans delivered into bondage…”

            In later pages, the magazine continued, “In 1860 enslaved people were the foundation of the American economy, more valuable than all the capital invested in manufacturing, railroads, and banks combined.”


The effect on history

            Slavery is not limited to American experience, of course. For centuries, all over the world,  slaves were property. The mighty could measure their wealth by the number of slaves. 

            Until recently, the stories of American slavery were not transcribed  into words. They were handed down orally. Just as Indigenous stories were. Just as biblical stories were.

            Indeed, Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr draws a direct parallel. “Most of history has been written and interpreted from the side of the winners,” he noted recently. “The unique exception is the Bible, which is an alternative history from the side of the often enslaved, dominated, and oppressed people of Israel, culminating in the scapegoat figure of Jesus himself.”

            Rohr calls the Bible, and especially the Gospels, “history from the bottom.” He writes, “It’s the lame, the poor, the blind, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the sinners, the outsiders, and the foreigners who tend to follow Jesus. It is those on the inside and the top -- the Roman occupiers, the chief priests and their conspirators -- who crucify him.”

            For that reason, Rohr continues. “Liberation theology -- which focuses on freeing people from religious, political, social, and economic oppression -- is mostly ignored by Western Christianity.”


Unwritten history

            There is, I contend, one popular form of “history from the bottom”-- jazz. 

            Jazz came from the bottom. It had no wealthy patrons, no written scores. It was considered “black” music, beyond the pale (pardon the pun). 

            Those of us who communicate with words like to believe that words are our primary vehicle of communication. They’re not – we also communicate through touch, through art, through music.

            "There's an extreme joy I get in playing that I've never been able to explain," Oscar Peterson said in a 1996 interview. "I can only transmit it through the playing; I can't put it into words."

            Of all musical forms, it seems to me, jazz offers the best analogy for life. Every day, like every performance, is an improvisation. You know the basic melody, but what you do with it depends on how you and the people around you interact. 

            Just the way black lives did, for generations. 

            Jazz is black history, without words, heard from the bottom.


Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                  To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





Tom Watson offered a good example of the “absolute superlatives” I decried in last week’s column.

            “One of my daughters and her husband were packing for a trip,” Tom wrote. “Husband was charged with doing the packing. At a point nearing departure time, daughter carries out something but is having a hard time finding a good location for it whereupon she says, ‘Husband, you're the worst packer in the world!’ 

            “Husband calmly asks, ‘Do you know everybody in the world?’”


William Ball liked the column: “Absolutely agree on uselessness of absolute superlatives. Indeed, the general overuse of superlatives seems to be a feature of modern N. Am. English.”


Bob Rollwagen called it, “Your best column this year. Better than the last one, which was good but not my favourite.”

            Bob went on, “Superlatives have a purpose which usually is related to salesmanship and seldom is connected with facts. I am instantly cautious when I hear one in a conversation. Some always use a superlative and they more than any one should not be trusted. When the word “better “ jumps in, listening and judgement is called for -- but only for the naturally curious or for individuals seeking greater awareness.”


John Shaffer countered, “It will take more than verbal gymnastics to counter Trumpism.”


Steve Roney objected, “I think it is going too far to say absolute superlatives cannot be proven. They are more difficult than comparatives to prove, but not impossible. The Guinness Book of World Records, for example, has had quite a run with it. It is fairly easy to prove something like ‘the world’s tallest building’ or ‘highest mountain’.”


Laurna Tallman: In my case, you may be preaching to the choir. When I married, my PhD husband was inclined to assess aspects of life on which his specialty impinged as ‘probably the best’ or ‘probably the worst’ and I accepted his pronouncements as gospel. However lacking in academic certificates my knowledge might be, my sphere of informed opinion intersected his often enough to raise doubts and initiate discussions. I learned that he had formidable stores of memory. [but] some of his assessments were based on his personal tastes. 

            “As our editorial work led us into areas where neither of us had particular expertise, his capacity for soaking up information soon qualified him as increasingly expert and brought him more work. My analytical and critical approach to content led to a division of labour where a smaller percentage of manuscripts needed my structural approach. The types of problems I tried to solve soon disillusioned me about the stature of the PhDs of some of the authors whose work I edited. In much the same way as I had come to appreciate the limitations and lacunae in my husband’s prodigious knowledge, I saw much more of the ‘sound and fury signifying nothing’ that had somehow been leveraged into their academic degrees. This experience liberated me from a false sense of intellectual inferiority. It also contributed to my independent research.

            “Neither of us is so inclined to superlatives now, but our areas of expertise create a tendency towards authoritative statements in those areas, which may be harder to bear for a listener than superlatives that are more easily struck down.”


My column a few weeks ago about my difficulties with the probability of life beyond life prompted Ward Kaiser to write, “Judging bv the letters you quote, you make a persuasive case for skepticism regarding  any possibility of life beyond death. While not dissenting from your considered stance and the strong support it gathered, I raise the question: Are there no other perspectives to be considered? 

            “Once, let us say, we all had a womb-encased experience. If someone had commented about a future life on Planet Earth, we might have brushed it all aside as irrelevant, totally beyond comprehension, a distraction from ‘reality.’ Could something similar not be the case in what we might call the ‘second transition’? If not, why not? Where is the logic behind accepting one while rejecting the other?”




Psalm paraphrase


Some commentaries argue that Psalm 2 (below) should be the second half of Psalm 1. Psalm 1 is about the righteous; Psalm 2 describes the fate of the unrighteous, the self-centred, the narcissistic. Even though this paraphrase portrays God as a force “out there” somewhere, the current course of politics in North America – yes, including Canada – inclines me like it.  


Why do the powerful people huddle together, 

hatching their self-serving policies?

They assume that they were chosen to rule;

they put their heads together 

to keep themselves in power. 

They tell themselves: 

"I refuse to be restricted;

I must have freedom to act as I see fit." 

God laughs at them;

They are objects of scorn. 

God will brush them off like dandruff; 

they will cower in fear. 

God says: "I choose my own representatives;

I am not bound to you."

Smarten up, you executives. 

Wise up, you governments. 

God has a quick temper. 

Serve the Lord, not yourselves;

Or God will be angry

And flick you into eternity. 



For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.





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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of some of the web links.

                  Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.

                  Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



                  I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)









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