A Fourth of July factoid

Many of you probably know this, either because you’re history buffs like me or you’ve seen me mention it here before or you saw it somewhere else today, as this is going to be far from the only place to learn this today.

But!

One of my favorite stupid party tricks is that I can always tell you how old America is without having to do the math. My birthday is tomorrow, and I was born on July 5, 1976, meaning I was born the day after America’s bicentennial. I therefore can determine America’s age by just adding 200 to my own rather than dealing with any piddling subtraction like some sort of heathen.

But I have another trick! I can also, by adding 150 to my age, tell you how many years it has been since both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died. You see, the two men both died on the same day– and not only did they die on the same day, but it was July 4, 1826– in other words, on America’s 50th birthday.

Jefferson’s last words were “Is it the Fourth?”

Adams, who always thought America should celebrate its birthday on July 2 because he was a contrary old bastard like that (hot take: Adams was the Bernie Sanders of the 1700s,) didn’t give a damn about dying on the Fourth, but his last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives.” He was wrong. Jefferson had been dead for a few hours, but, y’know, 1826. I don’t know how long it took for the knowledge of Jefferson’s death to make it from Virginia to Massachusetts, but it was probably at least a week or so, and I imagine it took a minute to determine which man had actually passed away first.

And now you know something about what happened 195 years ago today.

#Review: African Samurai, by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard

I have talked a couple of times about how recent trends in my video game habit have led to a minor fascination with the Japanese language and Japanese history. Specifically, I have the Nioh games and Ghost of Tsushima to blame for this, both of which hang very fictional video game storylines on top of actual people and actual events in Japanese history. Yasuke, a (real) African who rose to be a samurai in the service of the (real) sixteenth-century warlord Oda Nobunaga is actually someone you fight in both of the Nioh games. The real Yasuke did not have lightning powers or a magical bear spirit that fought with him, but he was a real dude who actually existed.

I’ve gone looking a couple of times for a recent biography of Nobunaga in English, a book that does not seem to actually exist, but during one of those searches I happened upon this book, and it languished on my Amazon wish list for quite a while until it finally came out in paperback a bit ago and I ordered it. And considering what the book turned out to be, it’s really interesting that I only know about Yasuke through heavily fictionalized accounts of parts of his life– because while African Samurai is definitely a history book, it’s not at all like any of the books about historical figures that I have read in the past.

Thomas Lockley, one of this book’s two authors, is an American historian currently living in Japan. Geoffrey Girard, on the other hand, is a novelist, and while I didn’t delve into his background too deeply it doesn’t seem that he has any particular academic training in either history or Japan. While there are contemporary sources that attest to Yasuke’s existence– he is depicted in artwork and there are a handful of letters from a very prolific Jesuit monk who lived in Japan that discuss him, among a small number of other sources– there really isn’t enough information about him out there to fill up a 400+ page book without finding some way to provide more detail. And this book handles that dearth of source material in two ways: one, by making this a book that is nearly as much about Oda Nobunaga as it is Yasuke (which was a treat for me, since that’s what I was originally looking for) and two, by making the book almost more a piece of historical fiction than it is a traditional history. It is clear, in other words, that a novelist had his hand in writing this, and if I had to guess I’d suggest that the majority of the words on the page are Girard’s and not Lockley’s– although, to be clear, I would be guessing.

How is it historical fiction? Because far more of the book is about Yasuke’s thoughts and feelings and day-to-day life than the extant evidence we have about him would ever allow. For example, we know, because the Jesuit monk talked about it, that Nobunaga granted Yasuke a house on the grounds of his home and provided him with a short sword and a couple of servants. That’s factual, or at least as factual as a single secondhand account from five hundred and some-odd years ago can be presumed to be. But that’s all we know, and the two-page scene where Nobunaga summons Yasuke and then surprises him with the house, and Yasuke falling asleep on his new tatami in his home and awakening to find his new servants bowing at his feet, is pure invention. It’s not necessarily unreasonable invention– there was no point in the book where I thought that the authors were going too far in constructing a narrative out of what they had, and they only very rarely go so far as to utilize actual dialogue anywhere, but the simple fact is that that whole sequence is fictionalized, and the book is riddled with things like that. Yasuke is traveling with Nobunaga, and he reflects upon something-or-another that allows the authors to inject a piece of necessary historical background. We know that at one point Yasuke fought with a naginata, and so there’s a paragraph at one point where he’s thinking about buying one. That sort of thing.

So it’s necessary to be aware of what you’re reading while you’ve got this book in front of you– it never quite crosses over to the fabulism of, say, Dutch, Edmund Morris’ “memoir” of Ronald Reagan that actually literally inserted the author into Reagan’s life and pretended he was a witness to events that he wasn’t there for, but it’s absolutely not a straight work of history. (And while I’m comparing African Samurai to other books, I want to mention Ralph Abernathy’s And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, which is another book that is supposed to be about one person and ends up being someone else along the way.) And there are several places where the authors are forced to bow to simple historical uncertainty: we lose track of Yasuke in the historical record at some point, and we don’t know how or where or when he died, so the authors actually mention multiple possibilities about what might have happened to him after the brief Nobunaga era ended; stories about enormous African warriors (Yasuke was 6’2″, and would have been easily a foot taller than anyone around him in Japan) in places where such people usually weren’t found, but they explicitly paint them as possibilities, of varying levels of likelihood, rather than picking one and ending the “story” with it.(*) But once you internalize that lightly-fictionalized aspect of the book, it’s a hell of an entertaining and informative read on a whole bunch of levels, and I’m really glad I ended up picking it up. I don’t know how big of a group of people I’m talking to when I say something like If you’ve ever wanted to know anything about sixteenth-century Japan, pick this up, but … yeah. Go do that.

(*) I wish they’d gotten more deeply into his name rather than relegating it to a footnote, but as you might have guessed, “Yasuke” almost certainly wasn’t his actual name; it’s likely that “Yasuke” is “Isaac” filtered through Japanese pronunciation, and “Isaac” almost certainly wouldn’t have been his African birth name either, for obvious reasons. So just because we see a story of a similarly large and skilled African warrior somewhere near Japan in the right time frame, knowing that other person’s name doesn’t automatically exclude it from being Yasuke, because Yasuke wasn’t Yasuke, and might have abandoned that name after leaving Japan.

#REVIEW: A Promised Land, by Barack Obama

This one sat on my shelf for a lot longer than I expected it to. Amazon tells me it arrived at my house on February 6, so it took almost exactly four months for me to actually read it once I had it. There are reasons, I suppose; the fact that the damn book is two inches thick and 700-pages-plus-endnotes long certainly had something to do with it, but the simple fact is that while I wanted to hear what Barack Obama had to say about his presidency, I didn’t really feel like I was ready for it. Frankly, I was angry with him, and not really for any good reason; the last four years were not his fault, but that doesn’t change the fact that I wasn’t really ready to remind myself of a time where I not only liked the president but was reasonably happy to be living in America. And while I feel like Joe Biden has had an enormously consequential first 100 days, it remains to be seen whether we’ll be right back neck-deep in shit in a couple of years.

On Sunday, unwilling to take yet another Unread Shelf picture with this damn book in it, I begrudgingly picked it up and started it. The entire idea of wading through it made me tired, frankly, and I was fully prepared to force myself through a hundred pages and then put it down, convincing myself that I’d tried and it’s not like I can’t pick it back up later. I wasn’t going to burn the thing or anything, but I definitely wasn’t looking forward to it.

Well, it’s the 3rd, and I probably read the last 300 pages of the thing today– which turned out to only be volume one of Obama’s memoirs, ending with the night they killed Osama bin Laden– so apparently I got over that. Obama has always been an engaging author (I have both of his previous books) and that is on full display here. There is also something about reading what is essentially a history book about a time that I remember. I have said this before, but let me remind you: not only have I voted for Obama nearly every time he has run for public office (I moved into his district in 1998; he became an Illinois state Senator in 1997) but my life intersected with his in a lot of ways. I know exactly where his home in Hyde Park was. His first kiss with Michelle was at a Baskin-Robbins that was literally across the street from my first apartment in Chicago; there’s a plaque there now. I had several classes with Bill Ayers in graduate school, and Ayers was very nearly my Ph.D advisor. And I’ve met Jeremiah Wright, his pastor. I am one of those people who was telling everyone that he was going to be our first Black President, although I figured it would be 2012 or 2016 before he ran. Honestly, I wasn’t terribly happy with his decision to run in 2008, thinking he was too young and inexperienced; his campaign convinced me I was wrong about that. Obama was my President in a way that no other President has been, and unless Pete Buttigieg actually succeeds in gaining the White House at some point in the future, it’s hard to imagine that any such thing will happen again.

tl;dr I barely put the damn book down for four days, and even took it to work on Tuesday. It’s exactly as good as Barack Obama’s memoirs ought to be, and it shouldn’t be especially surprising that I enjoyed it. Honestly, I feel dumb that it surprised me; I let myself get too caught up in my head over the whole thing and forgot that being reminded of a time where even if I didn’t agree with everything the guy in the White House did (he made terrible choices on education, which was the worst thing about his presidency, or at least his domestic policy) I at least trusted him to think. And there’s something to be said about voting for someone who you are absolutely certain is smarter than you. I wish I could do it more often, honestly.

(Before you say anything: Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris are both smarter than me. I’m not convinced that Biden is, but he’s absolutely a better President than I could be.)

Anyway, go read the book. Even if you don’t tear through it like I did, it’s engaging and interesting, and while I can imagine someone who finds it a little dry (did you find Obama too professorial? You will feel the same way about the book. He gets into the weeds.) I am absolutely not that person. Maybe wait for paperback, as the list price of the hardcover is $45, but go read it.

IN WHICH WE’LL TRY AGAIN LATER

I just wrote a thousand words of a post (I wasn’t done) about how we study and teach history in this country, and about what it means to “exclude” people from “history,” and then I decided that the entire post was wrongheaded and deleted it.

Which means that I’ve been sitting here for an hour for, like, nothing.

I have work to do that I don’t want to do. I’m going to go play video games for a while and hopefully when I’m done I’ll have an idea about something else to blog about today. It’s not often that I spike a post, but I think it was the right call here even if it annoys me.

That time of year again

…It’s Dear God White People Shut Up day!

I talk about this every year, and I do it to remind my fellow white people: Martin Luther King would have been to the left of every major politician you can name, and next year I need to mute his name on MLK Day because I get so unbelievably tired of (mostly) conservative politicians deliberately erasing everything about what the man thought in favor of a toddler’s conception of Jesus; ie, the Nicest Man Who Ever Lived, who never made anyone uncomfortable in any way and how dare you suggest any such thing. White people hated him when he was killed (by, uh, a white guy; not an accident) and the simple fact is if he were still alive and kicking most of us– most of the white men, at least– would hate him today too. There are politicians who praised him today who this month have voted to disenfranchise Black voters. It is proof of the nonexistence of life after death that this man, having spent most of said afterlife talking to Malcolm X and watching white people continue the Same Exact Shit, has not risen from his grave to slap his name out of the mouths of all sorts of people.

This is another one of those days where it is made perfectly clear to me (not that I ever doubted it) that I cannot possibly understand the Black experience in this country, because I am driven to snarling incoherent rage several times a week by white nonsense and I do not understand why Black people aren’t killing us all the time. I would understand it.

One minor little detail about that tweet that at least entertained me if not generating a minor amount of actual pride, much like a puppy that has received a single pat on the head: the head of the Afro-American Studies department at Howard University retweeted it. I’m not sure I should be as geeked by that as I am, but whatever. I’ll take my joys where I can get them this year.

(Also, the rest of the speech quoted in the tweet is here; I hadn’t read it before today and it’s well worth reading.)


I got a lot done today, and one of the things on that list was putting together lesson plans for tomorrow and the day after. My plans for Inauguation Day? Nothing. I expect to be a jittery wreck for most of the day even if it goes smoothly, and while none of my students really seem especially into politics or The News I suspect a handful of them are worried about it as well. So fuck it. I gave them a day off on Wednesday, which is typically a day with no in-person instruction anyway, because of “district training” that somehow never involves middle school math teachers. I also cancelled the 8th grade team meeting, and flat-out admitted in the email that I was doing it because I didn’t expect to be in any shape to take it seriously.

So far, nobody’s come after me. I don’t expect that to change, but we’ll see what happens.