3 articles Articles posted in history

My own ephemeral Milwaukee

I grew up — thirty-five years ago — in the neighborhood in Milwaukee recently beset by what the press calls “riots” or “clashes”.

The neighborhood was majority-white at the time, though I would say it was “somewhat integrated”, very integrated by Milwaukee standards: Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the US (Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit have traded this dubious crown over the decades since the Great Migration began). I had white friends, black friends. Immigrant Vietnamese friends. Jewish friends and Jehovah’s Witness friends. Friends with professional parents and friends whose parents were in the working class trades. I did not appreciate at the time that this was abnormal and was only becoming more so.

We were Jewish and aspirationally bourgeois, though the kind of aspirational bourgeois that when we won $100 of groceries in a raffle, it was a big deal and a big relief. There was (is?) an Orthodox temple and small yeshiva nearby: we attended neither, but I saw my confessional compatriots walking to shul every Friday.

I walked to school; I walked to my friends’ houses, I walked down to the Blue Boy and got frozen custard on a cone with a chocolate shell. On a few occasions a mean kid followed me home. He was a black boy named Romeik. But he was the kind of mean kid that, some other weeks, we were friends. Sometimes I feared him and sometimes I took a swing at him and sometimes I played with him, and out of all the complex feelings I had for him that he was Black didn’t enter into it. And I didn’t know how strange that was.

But can I trust my memory? Do I have this right? I can’t be sure. So much has happened since, to distort what I think I recall. And I understood so little at that age. My school was integrated, but how much, really? I don’t know what the experiences of my Black fellow students or my Black neighbors were really like. How much did it matter to them that I was white? 

I had a ten-year-old’s crush on a girl named Roberta who thought the way I said the word “archaeology” was hilarious. Her hair was twisted in braids with those elastic bands with large clear plastic balls on the ends, each with an air bubble in the center. 

It was 1980.

One summer, a few years earlier, the neighborhood was transformed: Dutch Elm disease killed all the stately elm trees that lined 53rd Street and turned it into a shrouded arbor even on a bright day. The city trucks came and cut them all down, and that day I looked out after all the noise was finished and there were just a dozen stumps, broad as dinner tables to my child’s eyes. After that, my dad planted bushes on the blasted strip of lawn, and they made a wall between our yard and the sidewalk, and I remember finding that strange. We kids were always in and out of each other’s yards.

It’s all different now. The houses are just the same but the white working class has gone, mostly ceased to exist — and the white professionals have all fled. I see on Google Maps that 53rd Street School is bigger; the original part is now dwarfed by new wings. I have no idea what it’s like to attend it today. The little corner market isn’t there anymore, where my mother would stop just to run in and buy bread. Same with the small deli that sold the sugar cookies with a smiley face in frosting on them. The Blue Boy is gone.

What I experienced as a child, while I was growing up, was, to the City of Milwaukee, only an ephemeral imbrication between two regimes of racial segregation. The area was segregated and all white before, segregated and almost all Black afterward. There was a short time, between, on the cusp of this tide, when it was neither. That’s the time I remember. 

Then we left, too.

And now a man is dead, shot by the police, and the park I used to walk to is bitter with tear gas.

Margaret Hamilton, lead software engineer, Project Apollo

Margaret Hamilton, lead software engineer, Project Apollo
[Margaret Hamilton, lead software engineer, Project Apollo.
Click photo to expand]

This is a great photo I just ran across on the internets. It said it was “Margaret Hamilton, Apollo program”, but it didn’t say who Margaret Hamilton was.

Margaret Hamilton was the lead software engineer for Project Apollo.

It had long been tradition that operating calculating machines was “women’s work”; it was thought to be just keypunching, like typing. Women programmed and operated the punchcard machines to produce calculations for the Manhattan Project. Despite the tendency of the project physicists to minimize their contribution, this was demanding work, much more than just moving cards from slot to slot — they were usually given requirements from the tech people, but often designed the approach and set up the calculations themselves.

The bias that “women do the mere programming” extended into the early days of the computer, and it meant that many of the earliest and most pioneering programmers were women, learning hands-on to do things that had never been done before. We all know about Amazing Grace Hopper, who wrote the first compiler.

Margaret Hamilton earned her BA in math from Earlham College, but obviously learned about programming on the job—there was no other way. In the photo above, she is standing in front of the printouts of the code for the Apollo guidance system, a lot of which she wrote and which she oversaw.

She was all of 31 when the Apollo 11 lunar module landed on the moon, running her code. (Apollo 11 was able to land at all only because she designed the software robustly enough to handle buffer overflows and cycle-stealing.) 

She’s now a tech CEO and won the ‘86 Lovelace Award and the NASA Exceptional Space Act Award.

The engineers weren’t all boys with crewcuts, short sleeve oxford shirts, and narrow black ties. That’s just a fairy tale they told for a while.

Something to remember. I suppose today’s kids are ho-hum about these recoveries of memory, but I think they’re pretty neat.

The iconicity of “peaceful resistance”

The New York Times’ Mandela Obituary Headline Couldn’t Have Been More Wrong

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Before it falls down the memory hole, it should be noted that the online US edition of the New York Times marked the sad passing of the great Nelson Mandela with this odd headline: “Nelson Mandela, South African Icon of Peaceful Resistance, Dies”. (They’ve since changed it to “South Africa’s…Moral Center”, which sounds like a place FIFA could have held business ethics conventions during the last World Cup.)

“Icon of Peaceful Resistance” makes it sound like Mandela was an advocate and practitioner of nonviolence. He wasn’t. Apartheid was above all a socioeconomic system of structured viciousness: the whites were not going to give up their advantages without a fight. The struggle against Apartheid was necessarily bloody. The symbolic force of an “icon”, no matter how noble its martyrdom, could not have defeated Apartheid. It had to be defeated at the cost of lives. Mandela always knew this.

Mandela founded and ran Umkhonto we Sizwe, the paramilitary wing of the ANC, which carried out armed resistance and a bombing campaign. The bombings mostly targeted high-profile pieces of property, but were nevertheless responsible for many civilian deaths. Umkhonto we Sizwe also executed collaborators.

Botha would have freed Mandela in ‘85 if he’d agreed to renounce armed struggle; Mandela courageously refused. On his release in 1990, Mandela repeated:

“The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement will be created soon so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle.”

He was right on both counts.

Don’t think he wasn’t reviled for it. In the eyes of many among the Western elites, Mandela was a Soviet-dominated terrorist until the day he walked out of jail, and into iconicity. Reagan put the ANC on the State Department terrorist organizations watch-list; this wasn’t undone until 2008. Reagan vetoed the South Africa sanctions bill, and was overridden — not before Jesse Helms fillibustered the override vote.

Then there were even more charming expressions of Western antipathy to Mandela’s violence, like this poster produced in the 80s by the UK’s Federation of Conservative Students, which I will reproduce without further comment:

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Poster by the UK’s Young Conservatives (thanks to @sarahlicity)But in American bourgeois fantasy life, the only good liberation struggles are Gandhi and King, and if a struggle does not match that mythologized template, could not have matched it, it will be roundly condemned while it is ongoing, and if it happens to be successful (despite us), its history will be rewritten.

The dialectic is a familiar one — familiar and a little sad. There is a way in which the myth of peaceful resistance is flattering to the oppressor and disabling to the oppressed. It’s as much the oppressor’s narrative as anyone’s. “You ought not to fight us with more than the image of your own broken body,” it says, “for we who oppress you are good and rational — most of the time. We have the same interests as you, and understand that you enjoy the same basic rights. We, your rulers, simply need to have our consciences pricked from time to time.” By couching the antipathy as a mere moral lapse, the oppressor is permitted simultaneously to deny the actual material basis of the social division and hence the necessity for a struggle for liberation that is more than merely symbolic, and to perform a mental splitting-off from its own identity of those aspects of itself it can now pretend were inessential deviations from its rational, humanistic core. Just as the United States broadly did with the benighted South of Bull Connor and the Klan. As if the story of American racist oppression was one of mere regional ideological peccadillo and not one of the founding principles of the whole nation’s economic structure. As if the story of Apartheid were simply those nasty Afrikaners and their gauche racism. They’d probably lived in Africa too long and allowed its “tribalism” to rub off on them, and so deviated from the European universalist norm. Still, one of us in the end, eh?

That’s the funny thing about colonialism — even when it’s visible, it appears only in ideological garb flattering to the oppressor.

In fact, this is such a reflex that the Times probably wrote that headline without a second thought, and it was only after a few thousand derisive tweets that they remembered that there is occasionally such a thing as real history, and they quietly changed it.

This post also appears on Medium.com

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