The box was heavy, both because the man inside was large and because his passing made his bearers heavy of heart. Old Benjamin was a good neighbor, always one to help and share advice. He gave to everybody, though most of those standing around the muddy grave today were dark-skinned as he was. A good man and a religious one–he loved his Bible, as the preacher noted. “A little too much,” thought 12-year-old Elijah, sighing to hear yet another homily from the Old Testament. He scratched another circle in the mud with his toe, as Ben had taught him, a line equidistant around a center point. His eye wandered again over the tops of the trees in the gray October morning, watching the weak sun trying to peer through the clouds. Or, was that a glow? Then, he smelled the smoke.
Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) was a mathematical genius, a polymath some would say, who taught himself astronomy and trigonometry and put them to work on his behalf. He was a surveyor who provided data for the layout of Washington D.C. He was a farmer who understood crop rotations and season fluctuations. He published six years of almanacs which were widely distributed across the mid-Atlantic states. He built his own clock simply from looking at the parts of a borrowed watch. And Benjamin Banneker was Black. He told Thomas Jefferson where to get off; Jefferson, apparently, didn’t like it.
Banneker’s story is so remarkable–so American in its expression of the pioneering spirit and search for freedom–that it’s going to take two posts to tell it. The more I started peeling the onion, the more there was to find. His family story is fascinating in its own right. There is also a mythology that has cropped up around him, where exaggerations have obscured the truth, and created a backwash of clarifications and reductions.
Then, there is the funeral. On the day he was buried, Banneker’s cabin with all his belongings was burned to the ground. Hard enough, for an intellectual Black man in 1790 to gain celebrity for his activities. Much harder, if most of the evidence is destroyed.
The Battle of the Sexes is over. That is, we have reached the point where women and men might compete against each other and both be taken seriously. Where a woman might break a man’s record, a man might beat a woman only by the skin of his teeth, where everyone might watch the contest and come away thinking–that was fun! that was competitive! That was No Joke.
Steph Curry and Sabrina Ionescu went head to head in a 3 point basketball contest last night as part of the NBA All-Star weekend. Steph won. Steph “edged” Sabrina, as some headlines carefully point out. But NBA fans were “in awe” of both shooters, which is where this ought to be.
Who Are These People?
In case you don’t follow basketball, let me fill in a few of the blanks. Steph Curry is the greatest shooter in basketball history–at least according to Golden State Warriors announcers and fans like me. Steph already passed the NBA all-time 3-point leader (Ray Allen) years ago. He’s 25% ahead of that record. And he’s still playing.
They’re changing the history books! They’re restricting books in the libraries! Trying to control the narrative! Distorting the facts!
Same as it ever was.
Historians are up in arms over a wave of current attempts to change what is conveyed as history. But before we get carried away by panic, alarm, and exclamation points, we should revisit the “history” of attempts to quash history. This has happened a lot. It might even be categorized as a “neverending story.”
The New Wave of Old Censorship
At the American Historical Association conference that I attended last week, there were a number of sessions devoted to considerations the wave of recent efforts to restrict how history is taught and ban books. Flyers were left on the chairs urging support for the wording of a resolution to be adopted by the powers-that-be. I’m not quite an academic, but the one thing I’ve learned is that academics are great at sitting in meetings and adopting resolutions.