Tag Archives: North Carolina

Miscarriages of Justice

by Jay Parr

Henry McCollum at the hearing that led to his release, after 30 years on death row.

Henry McCollum at the hearing that led to his release, after 30 years on death row.

This past Tuesday, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were exonerated of the brutal rape and murder of a preteen girl, a crime for which they had been falsely convicted, condemned, and imprisoned for thirty years. One of them spending the entire time on death row. McCollum was released on Wednesday morning, after spending over half his life facing execution. Brown, his half-brother, was released from his life sentence at a different prison later in the afternoon.

Both of these men were convictedand condemnedbased on confessions that were wrung out of them when they were teenagers (McCollum 19 and Brown 15), after many hours of high-pressure interrogation. Confessions which were written by others for them to sign, despite the fact that neither of them was functionally literate or intelligent or educated enough to read and understand what they were signing, or legally astute enough to understand the consequences of signing it (in an interview from death row, McCollum says he signed believing that if he did they would finally let him go home). These menscared teenagers at that time, who had only recently come to North Carolina and who had never had a run-in with the police beforewere convicted and condemned based on confessions which they signed with no defense counsel present, and which they have both consistently recanted from that point on.

Brown at the hearings.

Leon Brown at last week’s hearings.

Based on those coerced confessions, these two men have been imprisoned, removed from society, forced to live in the sterile and hostile environment of the penal system for decadesas men convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl and then thrust in among a population that is notoriously unfriendly to child sex offenders. Both of them have spent years on death row, and both of them have endured a long series of trials and retrials. Hearings in which their very lives were at stake. Literally.

A cell in North Carolina's death row.

A cell in North Carolina’s death row. (WRAL)

There are two distinct miscarriages of justice here.

The first happened 30 years ago, when two naive teenagers were coerced into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. That miscarriage of justice was exacerbated when the system that was supposed to afford them a fair trialthe system that was supposed to presume their innocence until the evidence proved their guilt beyond a reasonable doubtfailed to recognize that there was not a scrap of physical evidence tying them to the scene of the crime (that in fact there was evidence implicating another man who lived near the crime scene and who had been arrested for a very similar crime), and that their confessions were wrung out of them under conditions so flawed as to render them utterly invalid.

That miscarriage of justice has been perpetuated anew every time someone in the political and legal sphereincluding a Supreme Court justicehas trotted these men out as examples, as heinous criminals who brutally raped and murdered a preteen girl, as justifications for keeping the death penalty active, or as reasons their political rivals (who may have been so ridiculous as to point out flaws in the case) were “soft on crime.”

Reverse view of death-row cell. (WRAL)

Reverse view of the cell. The ultra-wide-angle lens makes it look bigger. (WRAL)

The second miscarriage of justice happened this past week, when after thirty years, these two men were exonerated and then simply released, with not so much as a mention of compensation for the decades of which they had been robbed. Think of the opportunities that were lost along with those decades; to have that crappy first job; to have that young-and-foolish relationship doomed to fail from the start; to finally stumble into that long-term (if unglamorous) job, and to meet that certain someone who would end up becoming their companion for decades to come; to know the joys and frustrations of being fathers, and likely grandfathers by this point. To live, that is, something resembling normal lives. In something resembling a normal world.

These men don’t have the decades of experience that is going to be taken for granted by everyone, given their ages. They’ve never used an ATM or a debit card. One article I read mentioned McCollum gushing to his parents recently about getting on the internet for the first time. But I have seen nothing about the justice system assuming any responsibility for helping them acclimate to the lives they’ve been denied. As a representative of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation points out, these men don’t even have the minimal support offered to ex-cons who exit the penal system under normal conditions. “It’s not like being on probation or parole. It’s just—good luck.”

The same article points out that there are processes by which the men could seek a pardon of innocence from the governor—essentially a statement that they had been wrongly convicted and sentenced—at which point they could then go on to seek some unspecified compensation from the state.

The death row day room; McCollum's world for decades.

The death row day room; McCollum’s world for decades.

These men, McCollum at 50 and Brown at 46, have never had the opportunity to learn the skills they would need to make it on the outside. They’ve never had to keep a job, or pay rent, or keep track of a variety of utility bills, or make their income cover their expenses, or plan a week’s meals and shop for them. They haven’t been in a grocery store in thirty years. If either of them ever learned to drive, it has been at least that long since they’ve done it. Not only will they be living in new, unfamiliar towns, the very concept of getting around in any town is going to be foreign at this point. Partly because it has been so long since they’ve done it and partly because so much has changed in the meanwhile. As adults, they’ve never been in the regular presence of women, or mingled with the variety of people who make up any normal public place. In fact, for the past three decades, their only regular company has been the other (male) inmates on death row and the uniformed corrections officers assigned as their guards. Their worlds have been the prison blocks and complexes where they have been housed, with occasional forays out into the world (most likely in shackles) for court appearances. For thirty years they haven’t had the option to decide where to go at a given moment, or to close their own doors, or to turn off their own lights. For thirty years they haven’t had a moment of true privacy. Having lived in the penal system and on death row for so long, and having been thrust there at such young ages, they literally have none of the skills and none of the experience they need to function in the everyday world. One article points out that McCollum, climbing into his parents’ car upon his release, didn’t even know how to fasten the seat belt.

McCollum faces reporters outside. What awaits in the outside world?

McCollum faces reporters upon his release. What awaits in the outside world?

It is no more in the interest of justice to release these men into the world so unprepared, and so uncompensated, than it is to keep them incarcerated in the conditions that, horrid as they may have been, are the conditions to which these men have spent the majorities of their lives being acclimated.

These men have spent three decades fighting to prove their innocence. They have spent decades fighting for their very lives. They shouldn’t have to fight anymore. It has been proven that their convictions were invalid and that their incarcerations were unjust. It is obvious at this point that the state of North Carolina owes these two men very comfortable retirements.

Something like this.

Something like this. With a staff.

If we can afford the cost of keeping these men as inmates, one of them on death row and the other for life, we can afford a roughly equivalent sum as pensions, in exchange for the lives that have been wrongly stolen from these men. If we can afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, spent repeatedly condemning them to die in prison on the basis of inadmissible, coerced, and disprovable confessions, we can afford to provide them with the guidance, the training, and the support to manage their lives in a world for which we have prevented them from being prepared. If the state of North Carolina were to take the initiative, to arrange for that level of compensation to be awarded and implemented quickly, without requiring anything further from these men or their tireless advocates, then it just might be possible to claim that justice has finally been served. Maybe.

BLS 362: Vice, Crime, and American Law

BLS 362: Vice, Crime, and American Law

Note: Thanks to Saundra Westervelt (who literally wrote the book on this topic) for taking the time during a busy weekend with Witness to Innocence to read and offer valuable feedback on this article.

On Sitting In, and Standing Up

by Jay Parr

I had a completely different blog entry ready to go this morning, but then I woke from a dream that got me thinking about something more important.

Woolworth's Sit-In

In the dream I was walking into a diner that was attached to a basic travel hotel. There were three or four young women — college athletes dressed in team sweatshirts or some such (you know how vague dreams can be) — sitting on the bench waiting to be seated. The host offered to seat me (and my companions?), when I pointed out that those young women had been there first.

That was when it came to my attention that the diner would not seat unaccompanied women.

I’m proud of my dream self, because I went ballistic. I started off ranting at the poor young host. He was, of course, just an employee, who could either do what he was told or find himself without even this subsistence-level job. In fact, as I pointed past him at the unoccupied counter seating, traditionally used by those who are eating “unaccompanied,” his face kind of looked like the the counter clerk’s in that famous image at the top of this post: Surely sympathetic (I mean, the guy in that picture couldn’t even eat at the counter where he worked), but in no position to even comment on the disparity, much less do anything about it.

Newt Gingrich being Very Important

Newt Gingrich being Very Important

 After a vague dream-transition I found myself talking to the man in charge. And a police officer. Both were white men. The manager/owner was older, white-haired, and reeked of privilege. Actually, looking back at the dream, he kind of reminds me of Newt Gingrich. He was spewing some nonsense about the morality of allowing unaccompanied young women to come into a family establishment and distract the poor unsuspecting fathers from their families. Because that’s obviously what these college athletes were up to, in their team sweatshirts, with no makeup on, hair pulled up in practical athletic ties, ignoring everyone else and talking shop amongst themselves. Surely it was all a ruse, and they were really there to steal me from my wife and daughter. Oh, and somehow it was their fault that I just might be too weak-willed to control myself? And of course, were I to have such a moment of weakness it would be inconceivable that they might, you know, reject my advances or something.

The cop had been called because some hothead was making a scene.

That’s about all I remember of the dream. That and something about large vehicles getting tangled up at highway speeds (anxiety much?). But as I was setting the coffee to brew this morning I started wondering what I really would have done, had I found myself in a similar situation, say, perhaps at that Woolworth’s counter down on Elm Street on that Monday afternoon in the winter of ’60. I like to think I would have pointed out those four scared but stoic freshmen and politely said, “They were here before me; I’ll wait until they’ve been served.” I mean, I know I wouldn’t have been among the hecklers shouting racist epithets (I’ve always been a little too Quaker for that), but would I have just quietly gotten my order and gone on with my day? Would I have gone home and mentioned the incident to my wife? Would I have been among the Woman’s College (UNCG) or Guilford College students who came downtown to clog the counters with white “customers” insisting that the the black protesters be served first? Or would I have been too busy supporting my family (or perhaps “too busy supporting my family”) to do much more than follow the articles in the newspaper?

pride_flag

The Pride Flag, because not all families are heteronormative.

I definitely connect that issue with North Carolina’s “Amendment One” vote last May. I was vocally against it, not just because I support same-sex marriage (which I do), but all the more so because its wording is so much broader and insidious that it affects any unmarried couple in the state, gay or straight. Oh, and their children.

I learned of the bill’s introduction in the state legislature shortly after an old coworker of mine lost his partner of thirty years and had to endure absurd legal challenges because the state considered my marriage — my second marriage, mind you, which was less than three years old at the time and had been performed in another state — more valid than his decades-long partnership, which had begun before my wife was even born. She and I have been flying a pride flag on our house since the referendum bill passed in the legislature. It’s a small gesture, but it’s how we feel about the issue.

UNCG students having fun at at a Muslim Student Association picnic.

UNCG students having fun at at a Muslim Student Association picnic.

The fact that those being denied service in my dream were women also points (albeit circuitously) to mainstream America’s complicated and uncomfortable relationship with Islamic nations, Muslim Americans, and Islam in general. I have a problem with any legal system or culture that limits the options of any group merely by virtue of their membership in that group. That goes for nations that curtail the rights of women — some of which do so on religious grounds, and some of which (not all the same ones) are Islamic nations — but it also goes for western nations and institutions that want to limit the rights of Muslim women to wear hijab, niqab, or even burqas. My wife has childhood friends, two sisters, who are Muslim. One of the sisters is divorced from an abusive husband — and the Muslim divorce was a lot simpler than the American legal divorce. The other sister once set aside the injunction against being alone with a man other than her husband, simply so that her sister’s childhood friend’s husband (i.e., yours truly) didn’t have to sit and wait alone. Brought me delicious cardamom tea and we had a delightful conversation amidst the din of playing children. Southern hospitality at its finest. These women are American born and raised. They are not oppressed by a misogynistic culture (well, that’s debatable, but that’s a whole different conversation). Their choice to wear hijab is not a symptom of their oppression, but an expression of their cultural identity. Yes, there are women who wear hijab (and niqab, and burqas) because they are legally bound to do so by oppressive theocratic legal systems. Yes, there are places in the world where unaccompanied women cannot be seated in a restaurant, or drive a car, or even walk down the street, because those in power have deemed it inappropriate. And yes, there are radical Muslim elements that view America(ns) as the godless enemy. But we can’t allow ourselves to conflate an expression of religious and cultural identity (wearing hijab) with sympathy for oppressive governments or violent radicals. Really. It makes as much sense to declare anyone with a crucifix or a rosary in league with the IRA bombers (and don’t get me started on how our media always point out the religious affiliation of “Islamic terrorists” but never that of Christian terrorists). But I digress.

I suppose this post could be an examination of my responsibilities as one who benefits from the privilege of the straight white male, or more broadly, the responsibilities of anyone who benefits from the privilege of majority status. Because I really do feel that whenever I encounter situations in which someone is being denied equal treatment or equal access to resources because of their gender — or their race, or their economic background, or their sexual identity, or their cultural identity, or their citizenship status — that it is my responsibility to call attention to the disparity, to voice my opposition to it, and to subvert it in any way that I can. And I guess that’s why, even in that dream that got me started on this rambling post, I caused enough of a ruckus that someone called the cops. Because really, it’s what I think any of us should do.

What bothers me most, though, is that it never occurred to me to simply say of those unaccompanied girls, “Oh, they’re with me.”

SECAC Art Conference: Coming to Greensboro in 2013

by Ann Millett-Gallant

SECACSECAC, the Southeast College Art Conference, was founded as a regional arts organization in 1942 and now hosts an annual, national conference for artists, art educators and scholars, and art museum professionals.

The organization also publishes The SECAC Review, presents awards for excellence in teaching, museum exhibitions, and artist works, and posts opportunities and jobs for art professionals.  I have attended and presented at numerous SECAC conferences in the past, in Little Rock, AR, Norfolk, VA, Columbia, SC, and Savannah, GA.  The 2012 conference was held in my hometown, Durham, NC and sponsored by Meredith College.  Conference panels are proposed and selected by panel chairs, and this year, I chaired a panel titled “Disability and Performance: Bodies on Display.”  This topic is central to my research and especially my book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art.

millett-gallant_book

The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art

My panelists gave presentations on independent films; the canonical painting by Thomas Eakins, “The Gross Clinic,” 1875, and comparable images of disabled war veterans; and the collection of freak show photographs in the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, CN.  This was my second experience chairing a panel on disability and disability studies at a SECAC conference, topics that are still somewhat new for art historians and professionals.  The panel went well and sparked much interest and lively conversation.

I also attended a panel on Doppelgangers, or images of doubles or identical pairs, which engaged art historical examples from diverse contexts and time periods, as well as a panel on self-taught, or outsider artists.  This latter panel was of special interest to me, because my good friend from graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill, Leisa Rundquist, presented a paper on the work of Henry Darger (the link is to works by Darger in the Folk Art Museum, whose administration and education employees hosted the panel).  Leisa is now a professor of art history of UNC Asheville, so the conference was also a chance to see her.  I especially enjoy SECAC conferences, because I see a lot of old friends and usually meet new and like-minded people.

Thomas Eakins, “The Gross Clinic,” 1875

Thomas Eakins, “The Gross Clinic,” 1875

I didn’t attend as much of the conference as I usually do, ironically, because it was too close to home.  On the day before my presentation, my refrigerator broke, so I returned home right after the panel to wait for a new refrigerator to arrive.  I attended two panels the next day and caught up with friends over glasses of wine at the bar.  I didn’t participate in any of the organized tours of local museums and art venues, as I can see them whenever I want.  It was nice not to have to pack for and travel to the conference, especially in light of how stressful and expensive flying has become, but there is something nice about going to conferences out of town, staying at the conference hotel, and immersing yourself in the atmosphere and activities.

This Fall, the conference will be held in Greensboro, NC, so hopefully I will see many of my colleagues from UNCG and the Weatherspoon Art Museum there, as well as, perhaps, my students.  I will be chairing a panel titled “Photographing the Body.”

What Should we Learn in College? (Part I)

by Wade Maki

Recently Governor McCrory made some comments on William Bennett’s radio show about higher education. These comments got a lot of people’s attention and not necessarily the good kind. Before reading any comments on what someone else has said it is best to check out the original source. To that end, I suggest listening to the entire segment of the Governor on the show (which you can download as an MP3 here).

Governor Pat McCrory

Governor Pat McCrory

Several comments were made regarding higher education including the importance an education has in getting a job, the shortage of certain kinds of training (welding), and the surplus of workers in other kinds of education (including gender studies, philosophy, and Swahili). While there are a lot of things worth responding to in the radio segment, I will address only one issue: Why disciplinary training in philosophy is valuable. Philosophy is, after all, my field and it is wise to restrict one’s public claims to what one knows.

What does philosophy teach us? Common answers include increased critical thinking, argumentation skills, and clarity of communication. In practice this includes a bundle of skills such as: seeing the logical implications of proposed ideas or courses of action; the ability to identify the relevant issue under discussion and separate out the “red herrings”, unsupported arguments, or fallacious reasoning; being able to break down complex ideas, issues, or communications and explain them in a logically organized fashion, etc. I could go on, but these are a sampling of the real skills learned from an education in philosophy.

What the governor and Dr. Bennett (who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy) said gives the impression that a philosophy education doesn’t help students get jobs. This has been a takeaway message in the media. Since, others have made the case that a job isn’t the goal of an education, I leave it to the reader to examine that argument. There are two points about the discussion that should be noted. First, Dr. Bennett was suggesting that we have too many Ph.D.’s in philosophy, which is a separate claim than philosophy lacks educational value. It may be true that we have an oversupply of Ph.D.’s in many disciplines (and a shortage in others). The causes of this are many and include the free choice of students as to what to study, the impetus for universities to create graduate programs to enhance their reputations, and the ability to reduce teaching costs by putting graduate students in the classroom. Again, I leave it to others to examine these causes. Nothing Dr. Bennett said indicated that undergraduates shouldn’t learn philosophy.

Dr. William "Bill" Bennett

Dr. William “Bill” Bennett

This leads me to the second point—Dr. Bennett is himself an example of the value philosophy adds to education. What do you do with a philosophy education? Dr. Bennett parlayed his philosophical training, in addition to legal training (a common set of skills), to become Secretary of Education, a political commentator, an author, and a talk radio host. His logical argumentation skills, knowledge of Aristotle and virtue ethics are seen throughout his work. The very skills described above as benefits of a philosophical education are the skills his career represents.

There are very good reasons to include philosophy as part of our higher education curricula. Unfortunately, philosophy becomes an easy target in public discourse disparaging what we learn in this discipline for at least two reasons. First, most people don’t have an understanding of what philosophy is and how it develops numerous valuable skills. Second, philosophy teaches transferable skills that enhance many careers without having a single career associated solely with it (besides teaching). In other words, the value of studying nursing may be to become a nurse in a way that studying philosophy isn’t to become a philosopher. The value of philosophy is found in the skills it develops which can be applied to all sorts of jobs. I suspect Dr. Bennett would agree and I hope Governor McCrory will as well.

Pride and Prejudice

by Ann Millett-Gallant

From Wednesday, Sept 26 – Sunday, Sept 30, Durham hosted the 28th semi-annual Pride Weekend.  This festival, which began in 1981 and is the largest LGBT event in North Carolina, included a number of colorful performances, including music, dance, karaoke, DJs, and comedy (especially a headliner by Joan Rivers), parties and get-togethers, lunches and dinners, meetings over coffee, walk and runs, church services, vendors, and a lavish and lively parade.  According to their website, the mission of these events is:

  • to promote unity and visibility among lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgendered people
  • to promote a positive image through programs and public activities that foster an awareness of our past struggles
  • to be recognized as an important and talented sector of our diverse state.
  • to support and encourage HIV/AIDS education, breast cancer awareness and basic health education

Although I am in complete support of these missions and always love a good party, I have only attended the parade twice with a friend of mine who is a lesbian.  I was thrilled when my new friend, Jay O’Berski, invited me to be a part of the float hosted this year by his Durham-based theater company, The Little Green Pig.  We all wore t-shirts in support of Pussy Riot, a Russian, Feminist Punk collective who stage activist Guerilla performances all over Moscow and who were recently incarnated (for more information, see this interview).

This is a photo of me in my Pussy Riot t-shirt in the café of the Durham Whole Foods before the parade.  Unfortunately, pouring rain prevented me from marching, or “scooting” in the parade, so I modeled my shirt where other marchers were gathered.  Although the parade was inaccessible to me this year, the spirit of the event inspired me.

The Pussy Riot acts relate to Unit 6 of my course BLS 348: Representing Women, “Performance as Resistance,” and most specifically, the activist work of the Guerilla Girls.

The Guerilla Girls are a performance team whose work includes live actions as well as posters and printed projects to critique the masculine biases of art history. The assigned reading for this class, the Introduction and Conclusion to The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, presents a selection of their written projects, many of which engage irony, satire, and witty sense of humor. The Guerilla Girls call for change and invite others to partake in their protests.

In 1989, the Guerilla Girls challenged the Metropolitan Museum on their lack of representation of female artists. Almost 85% of the Mets’ nudes were female, compared with the only 5% of their collection of work by female artists.  This ad above appeared on New York City buses.

Representing Women also includes an assigned reading on homosexual artists:  Harmony Hammond, “Lesbian Artists,” in Amelia Jones, ed. The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, 2nd edition (London, New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 128-129.

After the parade and conducting research for this blog, I became aware that one lesson might not be enough.  The Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program emphasizes diversity and the breadth and wealth of differing human experiences.

Jay Parr raised similar points in his blog post of 9/27/11.  In “The Significance of a Simple Ring,” he discussed his discomfort at seeing a non-married, homosexual man wearing a ring.  Parr analyzed his negative reaction, given his full support of and numerous friendships with the LGBT community.   In the specific context of UNCG, Parr stated: “The irony is that the training seminar I was attending was so that I could become a certified Safe Zone ally, so that I could advertise to the university that, hey, if you’re an LGBTQ member of our community and you need someone to talk with about that, I’m here for you.”

Parr then focused on the significance of the ring as a symbol of one’s commitment to their spouse, as well as of the legal and social status of marriage.  He advocated that all couples should have the right to the ring and all the significance and rights surrounding it.

Parr’s post predated passage of the marriage amendment to the state constitution in May 2012, which solidified the ban of same sex marriage in North Carolina “Defense of Marriage.”  I felt disappointed and defeated by this law, but maybe, at least, it will motivate those who are against such legislation to speak out.  Not long after this act, President Obama “came out” with his support of same sex marriage, bringing the discussion to nation attention.

Opponents of same sex marriage say it’s an affront to traditional marriage.  Yet, my husband and I, although we are heterosexual, do not have a traditional marriage: we lived together for 3 years before becoming engaged, I proposed to him, and we have no plans, nor desire to have children.  Further, I was born without fingers, so I literally can’t wear a ring.  Nonetheless, we were allowed to get married, and the minister I found online was, I’m pretty sure, a lesbian.  She was ordained, but would not have legally been able to marry a loving partner herself.  In my opinion, bans on same sex marriage are an affront to Civil Rights.  Interracial marriage was legalized in all states not until 1967, and 45 years later we are debating similar issues.  I hope that events like the Pride Parade and public support of same sex marriage will lead toward positive change.

I feel hopeful this Fall, as new television shows such as The New Normal and Couples have strong and openly homosexual characters, adding to the presence of happy, same sex couples on television, in examples such as Modern Family (winner of the most 2012 Emmy awards), Glee, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as popular shows that ended in the past few years, like Ugly Betty and Brothers and Sisters.  While I hesitate to wish reality would mirror television in general, this is evidence that perhaps American culture is beginning to have more exposure to and familiarity with so-called “Alternative” lifestyles.

__________

Editor’s note: Ann Millett-Gallant will be giving a book talk about her book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art, on Tuesday, November 13, at 3:00 PM, in the Multicultural Resource Center, on the ground floor the Elliott University Center.

Transcendence on a June Night

By Claude Tate

The topic area for this blog is designated as “Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Leisure, Family”, So naturally I thought about a little lightnin’ bug, whose scientific name is Phausis reticulate, but is commonly known as the blue ghost.

Image from the Encyclopedia Britannica

 

     “As humans we are born of the Earth, nourished by the Earth, healed by the Earth.  The natural world tells us:  I will feed you, I will clothe you, I will shelter you, I will heal you.  Only do not so devour me or use me that you destroy my capacity to mediate the divine and the human.  For I offer you a communion with the divine, I offer you gifts that you can exchange with each other, I offer you flowers whereby you may express your reverence for the divine and your love for each other.
In the vastness of the sea, in the snow-covered mountains, in the rivers flowing through the valleys, in the serenity of the landscape, and in the foreboding of the great storms that sweep over the land, and in all these experiences I offer you inspiration for your music, for your art, your dance.”

~From  the essay, “Evening Thoughts”, included in Thomas Berry’s 2006 book of the same name.

I was first introduced to Thomas Berry (a native and resident of Greensboro) in classes I took with Dr. Charlie Headington in the MALS program here at UNCG.  Sadly, Dr. Berry passed a few years ago, but fortunately, he left us with a considerable body of writings, some of which I’ve included in my BLS class, “Visions of the Creation”.  Thomas Berry’s legacy cannot be summed up easily.  As one of the world’s leading eco-theologians, he drew on numerous cultural, scientific, philosophical, and religious traditions to weave a narrative of a universe filled with mystery, wonder, and the sacred.  But to me, perhaps the most important message Dr. Berry imparted to us is that this knowledge and these insights are accessible to everyone. The earth stands ready to reveal its sacred knowledge, and show us our place and role, and what it means to be human. All we have to do is to pay attention.

Far too often, we only give the earth a passing glance as we go about our daily lives, but we do not really pay attention to it.  But from time to time, the earth will show us something so special that we must stop and pay attention. One such instance occurred to my wife and me last June.  It wasn’t one of Martin Buber’s “I/Thou” moments, but it was magical nonetheless.  Since I’m somewhat lazy, or maybe a should say extremely busy, I’ve pasted a portion of the letter my wife and I wrote to Our State in August of 2011 concerning our ‘stop and check this out’ moment.

“We read with great interest “Southern Lights “about the “blue ghost” fireflies in Henderson and Transylvania counties. About 10 pm on June 5 of this year, we hurriedly left our place outside of Etowah (10 miles NW of DuPont State Forest) to be with our son and his family as they awaited the birth of their second child in Hendersonville. At the foot of our mountain, near the French Broad River, there’s a large open valley.  That night the entire valley was positively aglow in fireflies, from the ground to the tops of the trees. While we wished we could have stayed longer, we could only stop briefly to appreciate this remarkable display as our granddaughter was on her way.

We had no idea why so many fireflies had gathered in that particular place until the arrival of our August edition of “Our State”.  We are now convinced that blue ghosts were responsible for this magical moment that heralded the arrival of a new life.

We have returned same time, same place but have never seen them in such abundance. But with a healthy granddaughter, a memorable sighting and another keepsake edition of Our State, we are blessed threefold! ”

The article “Southern Lights” was written by Diane Summerville.  There are several things that make them remarkable.  First, they are rare.  According to the article, blue ghosts only exist in a few places, and “Henderson and Transylvania counties are two of those places.” They can also be found in areas of Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. One reason for this is that they are very fragile.  We referenced DuPont State Forest (the legislature recently changed its designation to DuPont State Recreational Forest) because due to the cool, moist climate, there are a number of colonies there. But even there, they only come out during late May and June when the temperature and humidity are just right.  Everything was ‘just right’ on that night in June when we saw them. Another reason they are rare is that there are very few females. So when the population of a colony drops, it may take years for them to re-establish themselves. So sighting them is special.  Also, their lights are special.  First, they are slightly bluish, thus the name, blue ghosts.  And rather than staying lit only a second or two like other fireflies, their lights stay lit for several seconds, and sometimes up to a minute. They don’t twinkle. So a few thousand blue ghosts will be far more visible than ordinary fireflies. That was why our valley looked so magical that night.

But understanding what lit up our valley on that June night has taken nothing away from the wonder we experienced. In fact, it has only enriched the memory. I’m sure Thomas Berry would agree.

If you are ever traveling to the Hendersonville area in late May or June, and have some free time, you may want to contact The Friends of DuPont Forest. They normally take two or three blue ghost tours each spring.  But sightings aren’t guaranteed. Conditions must be just right. Wonder cannot be ordered at a take-out window, and it doesn’t come with fries.

Image from the Blue Ghost Post blog of a blue ghost sighting.

The State of Our Unions: Marriage and the Ballot Box

By Carrie Levesque

It’s a frequent topic of discussion in any election year: just how informed is our electorate?  How much does the average voter know about the issues we’re asked to vote on?  Many of us wrestle, standing alone in front of our electronic ballot, with how (or whether) to vote on races or referenda on which we don’t feel educated enough to make an informed decision.  Do we vote for this person because we’ve seen his/her name on a lot of campaign signs?  Funding this or that public project sounds like a good idea, but have I taken the time to find out whether it’s projected to be worth the community investment, or is it some politician’s pet project that serves the interest of few at the expense of many?  And what about when we’re being asked to vote on one group’s civil rights?

Last week in California, a judge ruled the state’s ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional.   Meanwhile here in NC, we prepare to vote in May on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Undoubtedly there are many voters at both ends of the political spectrum who already feel pretty unshakeable in their opinions on the matter, but some recent publications have made me think more about how informed the average voter is or needs to be about the institution of marriage and its role in this issue.  Is it enough to rely on our own experiences or taken-for-granted notions without thinking more about what the purpose of marriage is in our culture, what it has been historically, how it has changed and what these changes might mean for its future?

I started thinking about this issue after catching an episode of the afternoon talk show Anderson devoted in part to Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks’ controversial new book Is Marriage for White People?: How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone.  Though his work focuses mainly on race and marriage, when I got myself a copy and started reading, his research led me to other interesting works on the topic of marriage, family and American culture.

In his book, Banks examines two developments that he believes account for the African American marriage decline, the first of which interests me here: that the “rules of the [marriage] market have changed, so that people marry for different reasons and with different expectations than in earlier eras.” Banks references the work of marriage and family scholar Stephanie Coontz, whose 2005 book, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, looks at the evolution of marriage from a practical business partnership to a more romanticized, idealized emotional commitment today.  Both Banks and Coontz urge the reader to consider how today’s idea of marriage is a very recent development, not a timeless tradition, and how damaging some of our current expectations about marriage have been to the institution itself.

Another work of interest, Andrew Cherlin’s 2010 book The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today looks at a related issue: the way religion and law reinforce “Americans’ embrace of two contradictory cultural ideals: marriage, a formal commitment to share one’s life with another; and individualism, which emphasizes personal choice and self-development” (Amazon.com).


Other works treat the issue of same-sex marriage more directly, like E.J. Graff’s What is Marriage For?: The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution (a pro-gay work which also uses historical perspective to argue that the idea of ‘traditional marriage’ is an oxymoron) and the more conservative scholarly collection What’s the Harm?: Does Legalizing Same Sex Marriage Really Harm Individual Families or Society?, edited by Lynn Wardle.  Whatever your position, why not check out one of these books to find out more about what the other side is all about?   In the bigger picture, it can only help us bridge the painful divide over this issue if we all begin to understand more about the opposing sides’ needs, fears and motivations, even if we don’t agree with them.

Many people think that what we know about marriage from personal experience or the teachings we’ve grown up with is enough, but isn’t part of the purpose of higher education to make us question precisely these sources, or at least the practice of relying on them exclusively?   Don’t we experience again and again in our BLS courses the benefit of having our ingrained ideas challenged, broadened, or deepened by new perspectives, new historical or cultural frameworks?  Even if you think you know what marriage is, and why this right should or should not be extended to gay and lesbian couples, why not check out any of these books and see what others have to say on the topic?  It may not change your mind, but it will make you more informed at the polls this May.