A Necessary Missive

Wrote a letter to the USFA board today:

Dear USFA Board Members and Staff,

I was disappointed and disheartened to see or hear no public statement from USFA after the recent reports of at least two of our members having been singled out for unusual attention going through U.S. Customs when returning from fencing-related international travel. Perhaps, I thought, there was a statement being worked on, to be posted to the USFA website. Or, failing that, maybe there would be a formal motion or resolution to come out of the February meeting of the Board of Directors.

When the agenda for that meeting was posted today, I therefore read through it in search of such a resolution or proposal, and the only item I could find even plausibly related to this issue is Mr. Alperstein’s motion in the Good & Welfare portion of the agenda:

“RESOLVED: USA Fencing remains committed to the principles of diversity, inclusion and openness, and reaffirms that it welcomes and embraces members and participants without regard to ethnicity, religion or national origin. In furtherance of these values, USA Fencing reiterates is commitment to pluralism and its opposition to any practices, policies, rules or laws that discriminate against or stigmatize individuals or groups, that mark them for special treatment, or that deny them the full enjoyment of liberty, opportunity and equality on the basis of superficial or pretextual criteria.”

This statement is, to be blunt, a “Miss America contestant” statement—one that uses a lot of pretty words to say virtually nothing. Is it intended as a statement of support for those USFA members and others who have experienced unusual attention when traveling internationally? How can we tell?

To fail to take a strong public stand against policies and procedures that have already affected at least two well-known USFA members and may yet affect others is to implicitly approve such actions. While I understand the desire to avoid making a public fuss, this is exactly the sort of situation which requires a public fuss. That two United States citizens could be pulled aside on what can only be interpreted as the basis of race, religion, or culture is chilling. That effect can only be more threatening to those of our members who are legal residents, but not yet citizens.

A significant number of the referees and other officials the USFA depends on to staff our domestic tournaments and serve as part of international team cadres are immigrants and permanent residents. Impingements on their freedom to travel on our behalf have the potential to discourage their service and hamper our operations. Were such incidents to continue or increase, we could also expect to see fewer international competitors and officials willing to travel to the United States, and might find our ability to win bids to host World Cups, Championships, and even the Olympic Games compromised.

Beyond any practical potential effects of these troubling incidents is the simple fact that what happened to Ibti and Abdel was simply wrong. Like that of the United States itself, the history of the United States Fencing Association is not free of policies and periods of which it now has reason to be ashamed. Do not allow these incidents to join that part of our history. Do not allow these incidents to pass without notice or protest.

I urge you to strengthen the language of this motion to make clear that it is meant to specifically address threats to our members’ ability to travel freely, and then to approve it and urge other sports NGBs, as well as the USOC, to take similar strong public stands. I also recommend that the USFA provide appropriate information about travel rights and contacts for legal representation to any and all who travel internationally on the USFA’s behalf.

Mary Griffith

Indelible

Four decades ago, way back when we got the latest news only each evening from avuncular anchors like Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley on the big three broadcast networks, I knew I was living through the kind of history that would show up in schoolbooks within a few years. Every evening we’d tune in to see what the latest Watergate revelation was, who’d said what at that day’s hearings, which administration official had been the one to scoff or rage at the most recent accusations. And every morning we’d scour the newspaper for more gory details.

Every few years, I’ve thought back to Watergate and how engrossing and important and historic it all felt. In 1999, its 25th anniversary, I thoroughly enjoyed watching all those documentaries with my daughters and trying to explain to them what it was like.

But over the past couple of weeks, I’ve thought about one specific bit of the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearings that’s stuck with me—indeed, I consider it part of my DNA as an American—through all those decades. It echoed for me through both conventions—but especially resonated through the Democratic convention, which I kept wishing she could have seen.

This voice:

(The video is about 13 minutes, but if you don’t have that long, at least watch from 0:45 to 1:50)

James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman can only aspire to the majesty and grandeur with which Barbara Jordan invests the word “Constitution.” Hers is the voice I hear in my head when I read its Preamble.

But this is the single most American moment I will see in my lifetime:

 

We Get the Job Done

hmi701_1I’m obsessed—for entirely opposite reasons—with this year’s memorably insane presidential campaigns and with Hamilton: An American Musical (or more precisely, with the soundtrack, since both the commute and the ticket prices are well out of my range at the moment). But a peculiar synergy between the two sent me digging into the family history and genealogy files that I’d essentially ignored since I took possession of them after my dad died.

You see, I’m a product of white American suburbia. Not only that, I was born in the ’50s into a family that looked like every family you could see on TV back then. Just like in Father Knows Best, we lived in a house with a lawn front and back, and were a father with a job, a mother who took care of us, and three kids—me and my younger brother and sister. Oh, and most of the time, at least one dog. We ate hamburgers and meat loaf and hot dogs and Kraft dinner (sometimes with ground beef mixed in) and scalloped potatoes, with sides from the official rotation of suburban American vegetables (green beans, corn, peas, and carrots, with rare additions of asparagus or artichokes when in season). For exotica, there were occasionally ground beef tacos with faux guacamole (without chillies or tomatoes or tomatillos but with lemon juice and mayonnaise—shudder).

I’d been aware that my ancestry was mostly Scots-Irish and German, that one grandmother had come from England as a child, and a great-uncle many times removed had signed the Declaration of Independence, but that was about it. I’d never bothered to dig deeper. It was bound to be pretty dull, right?

Turns out, not so much.

Dad had pulled together information from various cousins who’d been interested in genealogy and added more from various online databases and more correspondence with distant relatives. Among my various boring ancestors were:

  • a guy who came to the Mother Lode for the Gold Rush from Maine and who, when the boiler exploded on the steamship he was going home on, ended up back in California as a rancher in Tehama County.
  • the Polish Jew who married an English Jew in Pittsburgh, upon which event her family disinherited her, apparently because he was the wrong kind of Jew from the wrong part of Europe.
  • a German family descended from at least eight generations who were born and died in the same Bavarian village who ended up starting vineyards to produce “medicinal and sacramental wines” in a Kansas that was turning Dry.
  • another German came to Chicago as a carpenter and cooper in 1860, stayed long enough to experience the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, and ended up in St. Joseph, Missouri.
  • a retired colonel who rejoined the U.S. Cavalry to serve under General Zachary Taylor in Florida, where he managed to get himself killed by Seminoles in the Battle of Okeechobee, which for some reason was seen by his relatives and many of his descendants as a “glorious” death.
  • a great-grandfather who served in the Army Signal Corps in the early 20th century, stationed in Seattle, Juneau, and Sitka, where he apparently became acquainted with Roald Amundsen.

Dad documented American ancestors back to the mid-1600s, to English and Irish who came to Virginia. But in that generation, which would include 4096 ancestors for me, he only found four individuals. For well over half the ancestral lines, the information just stops, usually because female surnames are unknown or the individuals had migrated to parts of the continent that maintained few vital records at the time. Maybe someday I’ll try to follow up on some of those missing people.

What I did recently, though, was make a diagram (below) from those ancestral charts, noting which ancestors were immigrants (green dots), which were born here (black dots), and where the trails stop (red dots). What jumped out at me almost immediately was that those green dots show up at least every two or three generations. I’d be willing to bet that beyond the red dots are at least as many immigrants as there are among my known ancestors.

immigrant tree

What you can’t see from this diagram, either, is that even that longest-documented line, the one that goes all the way back through colonial Virginia to England and Ireland, is full of people who didn’t stay where they were born, who moved hundreds of miles to explore unfamiliar places and build new communities. Or that some of those ancestors in both Virginia and even New York, far enough back, were slaveowners, so that it’s likely, given the reality of slave-based economies, that I’ve got more than a few undocumented and less white distant cousins I will never know.

Which brings us back to that synergy I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I am who I am because of not just where and when I grew up, but where and when all those ancestors grew up and lived, where they came from and what they built and moved on from and rebuilt. And that’s true of all of us. Whether our immigrant ancestors came for adventure, for a better life, for simple refuge, or because they were brought here unwillingly, we Americans are who we are because of them. Because of all those generations of immigrants who’ve never stopped coming, who’ve never stopped making us stronger, who even now make us more than we were.

Don’t mess with immigrants—you’re talking family.

My First (& Favorite) Celebrity Author

In the late ’70s, I worked in a tiny, family-owned independent bookstore in downtown Sacramento. Founded in 1924, it was the sort of place that publishers like Alfred A. Knopf and Bennet Cerf used to visit on their West Coast trips. Levinson’s only reluctantly carried paperbacks; the broad selection of classics in hardcover was a point of pride.

One particularly slow afternoon, the lone customer, an older silver-haired gentleman, asked me why we didn’t have a copy of the then recently published Essays of E. B. White. We had it, of course—just not where he was looking (because it had gone immediately to our “General Literature” section instead of sitting on a mere bestseller table)—and I pulled out a copy for him.

When he came to the counter to pay for the book, he admired our 1906 hand-cranked NCR cash register and started to pull out a credit card.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “We don’t take American Express.”

“That’s the only card I have,” he said. “Will you take a check?”

“Of course. I just need to see your driver’s license.”

He hesitated. “That could be a problem. I don’t have a license—I don’t drive. I’m just walking around town while I wait for the Zephyr to Chicago.”

“Hmm . . . maybe you’ve got something around here,” he said, looking around. Then he picked up a little mass-market paperback from a stack sitting on the counter next to us. “Would this work?”

The black-and-white author sketch on the front cover of the book was an exact match for the man standing in front of me. I laughed, surprised that I hadn’t recognized him earlier, and put the copy of Fahrenheit 451 back on its stack, next to the short stacks of The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Dandelion Wine, all lined up there on the counter, all with the same distinctive sketch of their author.

I took his check.

And it still makes me happy that the first famous author I met was one of the writers who turned me into a reader in the first place.