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Inscription Trail

March 29, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Enhance today’s blog by listening to three different musical interpretations of the land:

Zuni Rain Dance (30 seconds)

El Corrido de Norte” by Los Halcones De Salitrillo (4 min)

A’ts’ina: Place of Writings on Rock” by Michael Mauldin (1 min)

Inscription Trail may be off the beaten path according to today’s standards, but this was not always the case. As early as 1200 AD this place became a vital rest stop. Near the western border of New Mexico, Inscription Trail sits at the base of a sandstone bluff and presents one of the only watering holes for many miles in what can seem like a desolate place. Among the petroglyphs, foreigners began to inscribe their names into sandstone, hence the name Inscription Trail. This place maps history in a way seldom seen today. It is a literal palimpsest of names, cultures, events, and ecology.

To begin, the land itself is ever-changing. While El Morro (Spanish name for “the headland”) holds water, the bluff’s top is arid, dry, and windswept. Snow and rain run into El Morro’s twelve foot deep pool and is the only visible water for miles which is how it quickly became the watering hole for all peoples of the west. It also supports wildlife rarely seen in the desert such as mud swallows, tiger salamanders, and catfish. Juniper trees and shrubs at the bluff’s base contrast the windswept, sky-filled cliff. Crows nest in sandstone fissures as El Morro echoes with the fall of water.

As Europeans arrived and later as homesteaders moved west, El Morro became popular with scouts and explorers. Of course, Native Americans already knew of it. A Zuni town stands atop the great sandstone bluff at A’ts’ina (place of writing on rocks). Petroglyphs of bear and bighorn sheep date back to 1275 AD. (It would be another three hundred years before the first Spanish explorer arrived.) The pueblo atop the cliff contains almost 900 rooms and is thought to have housed about 1000 people.

In 1583, Don Antonio de Espejo traveled from Mexico (New Spain) along the Rio Grande into what is now the state of New Mexico. As part of a journey to rescue some abandoned friars, he met many native tribes. Some of their interactions were peaceful and some not, however he relied upon their information. Various indigenous communities told him of way to find metal ores and mines which immediately interested Espejo. He extended his travel without permission from the church of Spain. In his journeys around the Zuni pueblo, he discovered El Morro (though he called it “El Estanque de Penol” or “pool at the great rock”). Espejo did not find minerals or gold, however his journey did mark a defining point of New Mexican history which was to become an important site for missionaries.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the ways in which land carries historical reminders. This is, of course, true for El Morro. A few hundred years after Espejo, many wagon trains rolled through this area, and the name changed once again to Inscription Trail. This single place which contains a vital watering hole lists hundreds of names etched in stone. All names and images on this wall offer a glimpse into history.

Few names have received more attention than Juan de Oñate. According to the Inscription Trail Guide provided by the National Park Service, Oñate’s inscription is “one of the oldest and more famous inscriptions at El Morro…inscribed in 1605, fifteen years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. In 1604, Oñate left the settlement of San Gabriel with thirty men in search of the ‘South Sea’ (the Pacific Ocean). During their trip, the group visited the Gulf of California as well as the South Sea. On his return, Oñate left this inscription:

Paso por aq[u]i el adelantado Don Ju[a]n de Oñate del descubrimyento de la mar del sur a 16 de Abril de 1605.

Governor Don Juan de Oñate passed through here, from the discovery of the Sea of the South on the 16th of April, 1605.”

It should be noted that this was Oñate’s second time through the area, having first passed through in 1598. Oñate has a fairly brutal history in New Mexico. He founded settlements for the Spanish and also became the first colonial governor of Santa Fe, as recognized by New Spain (Mexico). In doing so, however, he is best remembered for the Acoma massacre where he killed about 1000 people of the Acoma pueblo. Those who were not killed (500 or so) were forced into servitude. Of those, Oñate ordered the removal of one foot from all men above the age of twenty-five. He was eventually banished from New Mexico and exiled from Mexico City for such brutality. His name is etched in perpetuity along Inscription Trail. Don Juan de Oñate is not the only political figure to sign his name here either. General Don Diego de Vargas also passed through in 1692 and much like Oñate, his record is also problematic. After the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, he reestablished Spanish control over the Native Americans and then became governor.

General Don Diego de Vargas’s inscription roughly translates to: “General Don Diego de Vargas, who conquered for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown, all of New Mexico, at his own expense, was here, in the year of 1692.” (Photo credit: Alissa Simon)

General Don Diego de Vargas’s inscription roughly translates to: “General Don Diego de Vargas, who conquered for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown, all of New Mexico, at his own expense, was here, in the year of 1692.” (Photo credit: Alissa Simon)


Not all travelers at Inscription Rock were conquistadors, generals, or adventurers. Some were homesteaders and settlers looking for land. The Inscription Trail Guide explains:

“More than 150 years later, below Vargas’s inscription, three men added their own inscriptions. P. H. Williamson, Isaac Holland, and John Udell were members of the first emigrant train to try this route to California in 1858. The original caravan consisted of forty families and was led by L. J. Rose, who was born in Germany but made his fortune in dry-goods in Iowa. At El Morro, they left their inscriptions and then moved on to the Colorado River, where they were attacked by Mojave Indians.

“Thanks to journals kept by the immigrants, we know that survivors of the attack, including Rose, the Baley sisters, and Udell and his wife who were both in their sixties walked most of the way back to New Mexico to wait out the winter. Some of the party started again for California in 1859 in the company of Lt. Edward F. Beale.”

Beale himself is a fascinating figure. Following the Mexican-American War, Congress commissioned a number of expeditions into the deserts stretching between California and Texas. (They were, of course, eager to gain access to this uncharted wilderness and failed to recognize that much of this land was already inhabited by a wide variety of Native American tribes.) Beale’s Wagon Road stretched from Arkansas to Los Angeles. In addition to charting the road, Beale attempted to use camels. While the camels performed well, he notes, they eventually lost out to mule trains (and mule lobbyists). Beale’s signature is not on the wall, however some of his men did record their names.

Finally, it seems a fitting end to Women’s History Month to note that a handful of women also signed their names at El Morro, including the above-mentioned Baley sisters. There is also an inscription by the then twelve-year-old Sallie Fox.

Whatever name we choose to call this place: Inscription Trail, El Morro, or A’ts’ina, it reminds us of the complexity of human history.

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Baldwin’s Unfinished Notes

February 22, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

James Baldwin was working on an unfinished manuscript when he died in 1987. Baldwin’s family recently gave this manuscript to filmmaker and activist Raoul Peck, who then turned it into a 2016 film entitled I Am Not Your Negro. While a text of the same name accompanies the film, it is worthwhile to seek out the film which includes a stunning array of archival footage. The book, too, includes some photographs, but nothing in comparison to the film itself. Baldwin’s notes deconstruct personal relationships, historical events, and popular films, making it impossible to simply read his notes. It is immensely helpful to see the images and places that Baldwin discusses. Truly, an image contains so much to analyze. In one section, Samuel L. Jackson narrates Baldwin’s discussion of the violence in Birmingham, while video images of Mars plays. This creates a strong image-to-text association, but also shows the great disparity between the barren world of Mars and the overheated passions of Birmingham. Baldwin writes: “White people are astounded by Birmingham,/ Black people aren’t./ White people are endlessly demanding to be/ reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars./ They don’t want to believe,/ still less to act on that belief,/ that what is happening in Birmingham/ is happening all over the country./ They don’t want to realize that there is not one step,/ morally or actually, between/ Birmingham and Los Angeles.” (34) The film also presents footage of Baldwin’s lectures and talk show appearances. Baldwin’s face speaks volumes. While the same is true of his written word, his presence enhances the documentary.

The notes that Peck received from Baldwin’s family were meant to draw parallels between three of Baldwin’s friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. These very different men were on the front lines of racial discussion and action. While the film gives some details and contains some footage of these men, I truly wish that Baldwin’s voice were able to tell us more about his relationships and interaction with them. There is so much left unsaid.

The film interlaces present day material with images from Baldwin’s life and from films and documentaries. In other words, Peck and Baldwin demonstrate the nation’s complexity. Baldwin’s focus on the arts helps to elaborate a number of points. He begins with questions of beauty, the notions of a young boy who saw equal beauty and likeness in Joan Crawford and a “colored woman, who, to me, looked exactly/ like Joan Crawford.” (25) Then, he moves into ways in which African Americans have been depicted onscreen, most of which played into stereotypes. Peck’s video montage offers a strong reminder of Baldwin’s voice through letters, lectures, analysis, and texts.

Below I have copied a few notes from the text which stood out to me. I recommend seeing the film in its entirety in order to better understand the discussion of race relations both past and present.

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“To watch the TV screen for any length of time/ is to learn some really frightening things/ about the American sense of reality.

“We are cruelly trapped between/ what we would like to be and what we actually are./ And we cannot possibly become/ what we would like to be until we are willing/ to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead/ on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame,/ and so ugly.

“These images are designed not to trouble,/ but to reassure./ They also weaken our ability to deal/ with the world as it is, ourselves as we are.” (86)

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“For a very long time, America prospered:/ this prosperity cost millions of people their lives./ Now, not even the people who are the most/ spectacular recipients of the benefits of this/ prosperity are able to endure these benefits:/ they can neither understand them/ nor do without them./ Above all, they cannot imagine the price paid/ by their victims, or subjects, for this way of life,/ and so they cannot afford to know/ why the victims are revolting.

“This is a formula for a nation’s or a kingdom’s/ decline, for no kingdom can maintain/ itself by force alone.

“Force does not work the way/ its advocates think in fact it does./ It does not, for example, reveal to the victim/ the strength of the adversary./ On the contrary, it reveals the weakness,/ even the panic of the adversary/ and this revelation invests the victim with patience.” (90-1)

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“History is not the past./ It is the present./ We carry our history with us./ We are our history./ If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.” (107)

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“Not everything that is faced can be changed;/ but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” (103)


Film: I Am Not Your Negro. Directed by Raoul Peck. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.

Text: Baldwin, James. I Am Not Your Negro. Edited by Raoul Peck, Penguin, 2016.


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Rankine's Citizen

February 8, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“I feel like one of our American peculiarities which is not serving us is our amnesia around trauma.” - Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine has a long list of accolades: bestselling poet, essayist, playwright, MacArthur Fellow, and the list goes on. Recently, I read Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric (which won the 2015 PEN book award). According to Merriam-Webster, a lyric can be just a song or musical composition, or it can express “direct usually intense personal emotion especially in a manner suggestive of song.” Two things strike me as important: first that lyrics carry intense emotion, and second, that they are musical, but not necessarily music. I think the latter is important to me because of the expressive voice throughout the book. Rankine’s voice has a musical quality of the chorus which repeats the main point again and again and again until we finally get it. This technique left me feeling weary, and because of it, I began to glimpse what it must be like to have experienced oppression. Moreover the lyric aims to fight back at one of the most frustrating aspects of racism: language.

Rankine writes about everyday life in this book. She writes about moments with trusted friends and also moments with complete strangers. Both scenarios often arrive at similar points: that she is seen within a particular frame of reference. Or more clearly, that she is who she is because other people have defined her and see her in a certain way. In this book, she felt the need to address both minor injustices along with blatant injustices. As she says, “Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word.” This after a series of frames which demonstrate two soccer players insulting each other. Some insults strike too close to home, or have been lived with for too long. In the clips, the soccer player’s response is physical, because a single hateful phrase cut too close to the quick.

Rankine’s book investigates responses to hatred, but it also expresses anguish in moments of intimacy. Rankine writes, “Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx….Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget.” In a recent interview, she claimed that these were the hardest lines to write in the book because they criticized a close friend, but they demonstrate the pervasive nature of difference. Again and again, she depicts moments in which people refuse to speak to someone who is different, who feel fear based solely on visual cues. In these moments, people forget decency, transparency, curiosity, or whatever it is that makes us human beings.

These everyday examples: the housekeeper, or dinner conversation, the bus seats and sports games add up. Repeated lashings give the reader a sense of what it must feel like to walk around wearing a visible stereotyped identity. However, the title of the book is what hits home the most to me. Discussions that I run often end up on topics such as what it means to be a citizen, a member of any community, what does it mean to have a home and how do you identify it. After reading these perfectly banal moments with the grainy subtext of oppression (or at the very least, disinterest), I have been continually pondering the idea of citizen. What does it mean to belong. How many people belong? Who is in my community? Do I know my community and if so, how do I recognize them?

Rankine began this project after September 11th, when she witnessed the elevation of a very real fear. She noticed fear and hate creeping into rhetoric. I suppose this book was always in the making, but perhaps that event spurred her onward. Near the end of Citizen, she writes:

“I they he she we you were too concluded yesterday to know whatever was done could also be done, was also done, was never done –

The worst injury is feeling you don’t belong so much

to you--”

I would benefit from a discussion of this work as I am sure there are many subtleties that I have yet to see. I suggest pairing Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric with her short films titled “Situations” found on her website. http://claudiarankine.com/

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From King to Rankine

January 18, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I enjoy rereading some of Dr. King’s remarkable works. As a culture, we are still coming to terms with his life, his death, and his very beautiful words. Personally, his words resonate with me in any number of ways. Foremost, perhaps, is the fact that he calls for honest (and perhaps painful) dialogue. The “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” for example, is a rational response to eight clergymen who called King’s activities “unwise and untimely.” In this letter, King writes that he cannot respond to all criticism, but he wants to address their particular concerns because he feels that they “are men of genuine good will” and that their “criticisms are sincerely set forth.” This, then, is a necessary prerequisite to any actual dialogue: the open-minded ability to weigh another person’s argument.

This same element of discussion is being embraced throughout America in a number of ways. I recently listened to an OnBeing podcast of a discussion between Claudia Rankine, the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University and founder of The Racial Imaginary Institute, and Krista Tippett. My favorite moment of this discussion is perhaps also one of the more uncomfortable moments in which Krista Tippett takes for granted the idea that in the ‘70s or ‘80s American society had moved past race. Claudia Rankine interrupts her and says, “Don’t say ‘surely we were past this.’” She means to say that the more nuanced elements of racism linger in ways that outsiders can hardly imagine and so while some people saw progress, others were still seeing perpetuated injustices like disproportionate incarceration rates. The moment is slightly uncomfortable, but the result is a shared understanding, which to me is the greatest achievement of dialogue. Not all moments will be successful or transcendent, but these small moments work toward a greater good. The transcript of this section reads:

Ms. Tippett: Well, right. But I think there are reasons to feel that, to be nervous. And it’s interesting, because there aren’t that many people, even just given this conversation - there aren’t that many people like Eula [Biss], saying, let’s talk about whiteness. Let’s talk about whiteness. There was actually a moment in that conversation with her where - two white people talking about whiteness, and we both agreed that it was mortifying and embarrassing and messy. Part of it is, you feel like, surely, we were past this. We shouldn’t be having to have this conversation at this advanced age. She talked about how —

Ms. Rankine: Krista, don’t say that. Don’t say, “Surely we were past this.”

Ms. Tippett: I think that’s one reason people feel awkward, because we’re still getting over from this cathartic five years —

Ms. Rankine: No, but you know: mass incarceration — you know what’s happening.

Ms. Tippett: I know.

Ms. Rankine: So not “surely” — I mean, those things were always happening.

Ms. Tippett: They were, but I think people who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s and ’90s were born into a world in which they were told that yes, sure, it wasn’t perfect yet, but we were inexorably moving past it. That’s an instinct. And now we’re having to unlearn and say, actually, we weren’t anywhere. We just made baby steps. That’s what I mean.

Ms. Rankine: OK, OK.

I appreciate Claudia Rankine’s persistence and care with speech, and also her patience to understand Krista Tippett’s response. I also appreciate Krista Tippett’s ability to explain what she meant and how she meant it. Subjects such as racism are personal and offensive and often instill hateful rhetoric. To me, this conversation demonstrates necessary elements of reason, patience, and open minds.

It is important, perhaps vital, to note the moments when people disagree. As a leader of conversations, I try to take advantage of those awkward moments, which is not always easy (or successful). The conversation between Rankine and Tippett reminded me, once more, of Dr. King’s words. More than anything, he is frustrated by the “appalling silence of good people.” He writes that “injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

This conversation deals specifically with elements of race, but dialogue is a necessary aspect of all human relations. I find that the more we practice open-minded listening, the better we will become as a society.

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