Category Archives: Creativity

My History or Yours?

My fiction project about a black girl growing up in antebellum Kansas and Philadelphia tends to generate a lot of curiosity. People want to know why I am not writing about Indian Americans. Or about historical indians. What could possibly resonate with me about a black girl in the 1850s? How could I possibly understand such a character well enough to write about her?

I’m always struck by that response. Can anyone living today claim to have some special insight, not as a scholarly expertise, but as a function of personal cultural engagement, about a black girl in the 1850s? Can I, born in Washington DC and much better versed in American history than Indian history, claim some authority on something like 19th Century Indian experience? Does being black, without more, make one better suited than me (with my enormous interest in the subject), to empathic invention about it?

As I like to say, history isn’t inherited piecemeal by genetic lineage. History, any part of history, belongs to those who choose to study it, be inspired by it, revel in it, or in some way engage it.

But I’m talking about ideas, knowledge, empathy — intangibles. What about objects?

Sharon Waxman’s Loot is a fascinating inquiry into competing claims of ownership of great objects of antiquity.

The answer is anything but easy. I think a common contemporary preference is for return to “origin” just as throughout earlier modern history the preference was for respecting the custody of the more “enlightened” (Waxman’s book has an extensive treatment of Lord Elgin’s acquisition of the vast collection of Greek marbles in the British Museum, which was largely driven by a desire to “improve” the English artistic taste and an obsession with possessing beauty).

There is definitely some truth to the argument that a lot of art, if left in their original locations, might have been destroyed, either by poverty-induced (or corruption-induced) neglect or pollution, or by intentional violence — remember the Taliban effort to eradicate Buddhist art in Afghanistan just a few years ago? There is also a difference between amateur looting, which tends to damage, and scholarly looting, which tends to preserve. And what about the “legacy” that grows from having taken care of an object for decades or perhaps centuries? I find this kind of legacy more compelling than the incidental heritage of geography.

On the other hand, as Waxman points out, the looting of beautiful objects has not typically been motivated by any desire to “rescue” the works from any foreseeable harm, but from a desire to possess them. That many objects have been preserved from future disaster is often a matter of historical accident.

So what do we do now?


the long habit of invention

After initially stumbling on clumpier-than-expected Martian soil, the Phoenix lander has successfully revised its soil-delivery methods to fit the conditions on the ground, so its research can continue.

What’s awe-inspiring about that (aside from the fact that we have robots smart enough to fly to Mars, navigate the atmosphere to land properly, explore the surface, conduct research, and adjust to conditions as necessary!) is that it’s so typical of us. Trial and error. Experimentation. We’ve always done it.

Apparently (and not surprisingly) there is now evidence that Early Humans Experimented To Get Bow And Arrow Just Right” in a fairly systematic way. Not surprising, but amazing.

Even with the benefit of thousands of years of math and thought and recorded language already developed by others, it is still truly impressive that people invent computers and spacecraft and techniques for performing brain surgery on wide awake patients.

In some ways, though, it’s even more incredible that someone invented that first spear. Someone figured out you can make stuff. Someone had the bright idea that burning the meat makes it easier to chew! Someone (much later, but still pretty awesome for its time) thought: lets break open each grain of wheat, scrape out the stuff, pulverize it, mix it with water, and then shape it into some form — maybe similar to how it looked in its husk in the first place!