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A New Birth of Freedom Posted - May 07, 2021
The book is "THE AGITATORS: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women's Rights" by Dorothy Wickenden. Who were the agitators? They were Harriet Tubman, Martha Wright, and Frances Seward. Harriet Tubman was the most famous of the three, whose life story is well-known (indeed, her face will replace that of Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill some time in 2022). The three women comprised a unique circle of friends, whose individual efforts helped usher in what Lincoln promised in his Gettysburg Address, "A New Birth of Freedom", not just for millions of enslaved African Americans, but for women too–the right to vote, own property, and hold elective office. Much of the scholarship the author relied upon is drawn from the many letters of Martha Wright and Frances Seward, as well as newspaper accounts of Harriet Tubman's activity before, during, and after the Civil War. At 307 pages, the book reads more like a well-plotted novel than a dry recounting of historical people and events.

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery on a Maryland plantation. In 1849, when she was in her early 20s, she escaped to Philadelphia, (a.k.a. "The City of Brotherly Love" that thanks to the efforts of the Quakers, had long welcomed slaves fleeing from the oppression of Southern plantations). Having found freedom, she returned to her home state as a conductor on the Underground Railroad that carried slaves to Canada–out of the long reach of slave owners seeking their return. During the Civil War she worked as a scout, spy and nurse for the Union Army.

One of the stops on the Underground Railroad, was a rural township in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, named Auburn. At the time the Finger Lakes region was the nation's hotbed of radical ideas, including abolition, temperance, and women's rights. It was in Auburn that Ms Tubman and a number of freedom seekers were given temporary haven in the homes of Martha Wright and Frances Seward. Both women were staunch abolitionists and activists in the temperance and women's rights movement.

Giving a meal and a bed to a runaway slave was an act of courage in an era when the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 were very much in force, and imposed harsh penalties on those who helped escapees. Strongly religious, the three women believed that God was on the side of the abolitionists, and while taking sensible precautions, did not fear being caught. Ms Wright in particular took personal satisfaction in what she was doing. On the night that the first fugitive arrived in her kitchen, she felt "a sense of satisfaction unlike any she'd ever experienced," writes the author, quoting from one of Wright's letters. A mother of seven, Martha Wright was a friend and compatriot of feminist leaders Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She also was one of the participants of the landmark Seneca Falls Convention.

The third agitator was, in the author's words, a "quieter rebel." Frances Seward got her first taste of slavery on a visit to Virginia in 1835, when she was 30. Like Abraham Lincoln before her, she was sickened by what she saw–in her case, 10 weeping black boys, ages 6 to 12, naked, roped together and overseen by a white man with a whip. The children were on their way to the auction block, where they would be sold to work in the cotton fields of the Deep South.

As the wife of William Henry Seward, governor of New York, then Senator, and Lincoln's secretary of state, she found herself in the difficult position of trying to follow her conscious without damaging her husband's political career. In keeping with her husband's wishes, she kept a low profile about her antislavery work. While her husband enjoyed the social side of politics, she did not, and wasn't sad when a virtual unknown, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, was chosen over her husband as the Republican Party's presidential nominee. Behind the scenes, however, she was a powerful and persistent advisor to her husband, pushing him to press Lincoln to emancipate the slaves.

The author does a very good job of describing life in politically-active Auburn of the 1840s, and in Washington D. C. prior to and during the Civil War. Best of all she breaths life into a number of historically significant characters–uncompromising abolitionist John Brown, who led the ill-fated slave-uprising at Harper's Ferry; Frederick Douglass, the gifted orator and self-taught former slave who was a neighbor and friend of the Wrights and Sewards; Harriet Beecher Stow, who wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin"; and Lincoln, whom quoting from one of Ms. Seward's letters, describes the 16th president as "amusing and friendly, with a manner like an unassuming farmer's–not awkward & ungainly but equally removed from polish or manner." She also quotes abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who said, "The greatest measure of the nineteenth century (the Thirteenth Amendment) was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America."

Tubman's wartime service in South Carolina is chronicled in a dramatic chapter about a military raid on plantations along the Combahee River in which she led 750 slaves to safety. As a sign of things to come in the postwar years, Ms. Tubman, on her way from the Fifteenth Street Church in Washington, was ordered off a segregated streetcar by a conductor.

Also chronicled is the Battle of Gettysburg, where Martha's son Willy, fought gallantly and was wounded. Another moving scene is an account of the attempt made on William Seward's life by an associate of John Wilkes Booth on the night of Lincoln's assassination. Seward's daughter, Fanny, who witnessed the knife attack, wrote in her journal afterwards: "Blood, blood, my thoughts seemed drenched in it–I seemed to breathe its sickening odor."

While violence runs through much of the narrative, so does the religious conviction of the three friends–Martha, Frances, Harriet–respectively, a Quaker, an Episcopalian, and a Methodist. Harriet Tubman went so far as to say that God wouldn't let Lincoln win the war until he had freed the slaves.

The star of the book is unquestionably Harriet Tubman, whom the author paints as highly intelligent, determined and dignified–"a small unstoppable woman . . . unafraid of the of the slave power of the South and the lawmakers in Washington." She lived a good, long life in service to her fellow man. After the war, she settled in Auburn, in a house the Sewards had given her, and in 1869, married Nelson Davis. In the book's closing pages is a wonderful photograph of her, taken in 1911, two years before her death at age 90. At Fort Hill Cemetery, due west and down several hills from the Seward and Wright family plots, Harriet's grave can be found under a towering Norwegian spruce. A tribute, engraved on the back of her tombstone reads:

"To the Memory of HARRIET TUBMAN DAVIS Heroine of the Underground Railroad. Nurse and Scout in the Civil War. Born about 1820 in Maryland. Died March 10, 1913 at Auburn, N.Y. "Servant of God. Well Done."

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In Search of the American Dream
Posted - May 01, 2021
The book is entitled, "The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone And How We Can Prosper Together", by Heather McGhee. What the book does is recount the author's three-year journey across the United States in search of something akin to the American Dream, and what has become of it. Most of what she found will break your heart.

Two of the concepts she explores are (1) the Zero-Sum Paradigm, and (2) the Solidarity Dividend. The Zero-Sum Paradigm is the belief that there is not enough to go around, that in order for one to succeed, someone must lose. It's a belief that has haunted America since its inception, beginning with slavery, and, in our time, racism, (a.k.a. "the fear of The Other"). The Solidarity Dividend, on the other hand, are the benefits we reap when people come together across race to accomplish what we simply cannot do on our own. Quite simply, that is the point of Ms McGhee's book–that people truly do need each other, and when working together can achieve the peace and prosperity that is the American Dream.

The author illustrates how the fear of "The Other" is not only irrational, but has led to a number of costly public policies; policies that ironically have hurt both black and white Americans alike, many of which she cites, beginning with the building of public pools in the early twentieth century, pools sometimes big enough to hold thousands of swimmers.

RACISM DRAINED THE POOL

Rather than share the pool with the local black community, a number of towns instead chose to drain them, and in some cases backfill them with dirt, and pave them over with concrete (as examples, she cites Warren, Ohio, and Montgomery, West Virginia). Where did white people (who through their property taxes paid for the pool) take their children to swim? To private clubs, where they paid for the privilege with stiff membership fees. She also finds a corollary between Jim Crow laws in the South, and the redlining of neighborhoods in the North; the objective of both is the same: to enforce segregation.

PUBLIC EDUCATION

Another example is public schools, where, in wealthy white communities (she sites Houston, Texas), white families refuse to send their children, choosing instead to send them to costly all-white private schools. The result is a generation of kids who feel superior and entitled, and ultimately unable to cope in a changing world. She writes, "Research reveals that racially diverse K–12 schools can provide better citizens–white students who feel a greater sense of civic engagement, who are more likely to consider friends and colleagues from different races as part of 'us' rather than 'them,' who will be more at ease in the multicolor future of America in which white people will no longer be the majority."

Another example, is government funding of higher education, such as the G.I. Bill, and publicly funded colleges (she cites City University of New York, and the University of California system of state colleges). The massive public investment wasn't considered charity; as individual states saw a return of three to four dollars back for every dollar it invested in public colleges. However, at some point law makers, from California to Washington D.C., yielded to short-sighted politics, and began cutting budgets, thereby shifting the cost of higher education onto students in the form of student loans. Such policies hurt black and white students equally, with high-interest loans that take several years–even decades–to pay off.

SUBPRIME HOUSE LOANS

Remember the global financial crisis of 2008? The cause was blamed on poor-lending practices (in the form of subprime loans) encouraged by the federal government's push to make home ownership easier for African Americans. The author presents statistics that reveal this was not the case at all. In fact, most of these subprime loans were not intended for first-time home buyers, but rather were loans designed to refinance existing home loans at a lower interest rate. Indeed, many disproportionally Black homeowners were targeted by aggressive mortgage brokers and lenders. An analysis conducted by the Wall Street Journal in 2007, revealed that the majority of subprime loans were sold to Black homeowners who could have qualified for less expensive prime loans. So, why would homeowners switch to subprime loans in the first place, when it meant higher monthly payments, refinance fees, plus a higher debt burden? The short answer is they were never informed.

It turns out a number of these homeowners were making monthly payments and well on their way to paying off their home loan. However, when the economy went south, they could no longer make monthly payments and, as a result, lenders foreclosed and took their home.

Why did this happen? Greed, says the author. "I'm sure most of the people in the industry (who made lots of money pushing subprime loans on unsuspecting Black homeowners) would claim not to have a racist bone in their body–in fact, I heard those exact words from representatives of lending companies in the aftermath of the crash. But history might counter: What is racism without greed? It operates on multiple levels. Individual racism, whether conscious or unconscious, gives greedy people the moral permission to exploit others in ways they never would with people whom they empathized with."

COLLECTIVE BARGAINING

The author went to a Nissan Assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi, to find out why auto workers rejected collective bargaining. She writes: "The victories unions won reshaped work for us all: the forty-hour workweek, worker compensation, employee health insurance and retirement benefits"–all these components of a "good job" came from collective bargaining and union advocacy in the late 1930s and '40s. "And the power to win these benefits came from solidarity–Black, white, and brown men and women, immigrant and native-born. Indeed, unions made the American middle class." So, why was it rejected in Canton, Mississippi, and, for that matter, throughout the Old South? The antiunion forces won in part by turning the union into a sign of weakness, as a refuge for the "lazy". Writes the author: "The word union itself seemed to be a dog-whistle in the South, code for undeserving people of color who needed a union to compensate for some flaw in their character."

RELIGION AND RACISM

On her journey, the author encountered two white Evangelical ministers: pastor Daniel Hill, of River City Church, in Chicago, and Reverend Jim Wallis (retired). Both lead (or have led) deliberately multicultural churches.

Explaining the mission of his church, Pastor Hill said, "Well, Revelations 7:9 is a vision of heaven that is every tongue and every tribe that God's ever created." Furthermore, Pastor Hill says, "It's impossible to have a meaningful relationship with Jesus and not care about evil in our day and age. The ideology of white supremacy is, if not the premier form of evil, it's at least one of the clearest forms of evil on a large scale in our day and age."

Reverend Wallis confided to the author of speaking to the heads of several major Christian denominations in America. "Now," he told them, "you all have been told or taught or learned how slavery was common, and slavery was all over the world. We Christians, in fact–British and American–were the ones who decided that we couldn't do to Indigenous people and kidnapped Africans what we were doing, if they were indeed people made in the image God.

"So, we said they weren't. They weren't humans made in the image of God. What we did, we threw away 'Image Dei'. We threw it away to justify what we were doing . . . white supremacy was America's original sin . . . At the heart of the sin was a lie," he said.

DIVERSITY IN THE COURTROOM

The author cites studies that show racially diverse juries deliberate longer and perform better in part because the white jurors upped their game in mixed company. "White people in the diverse teams 'cited more case facts, made fewer errors, and were more amenable to discussion of racism when in diverse versus all-White groups.'" The author concludes: "Our differences have the potential to make us stronger, smarter, more creative, and fairer. Exposure to multiple viewpoints leads to more flexible and creative thinking and greater ability to solve problems."

THE SOLIDARITY DIVIDEND

The author's search for the American Dream ended in Lewiston, Maine, where in the presence of shuttered businesses on Main Street, and closed manufacturing plants on the edge of town, it appeared the American Dream had come to an end. Lewiston was an example of a town where the nation's textile industry had once thrived, but as with so many towns in northeastern United States, the big manufacturing companies had moved to the American South for cheaper labor, and eventually to China and Southeast Asia.

However, a closer look on the next street revealed that many of the stores and shops had reopened for business, and one street over from there the public school had reopened its doors to teach children again. The secret of Lewiston's renewed success was something of an accident: in the early 1990s the U.S. government accepted thousands of refugees from the Somali Civil War and resettled many of them in the now-empty towns in New England, such as Lewiston.

Writes the author: "Lewiston is not alone in this new wave of new people; for the past twenty years, Latinx, African, and Asian immigrants have been repopulating small towns across America. Pick a state, and you'll find this story in one corner or another." Further on, she writes: "Towns across the Texas Panhandle have been drying up and losing populations for years, but the potato farming stronghold of Dallart grew by 7 percent from 1990 to 2016 because of Latinx families. Low-paid farmland food-processing work is what draws foreign-born people to these small towns at first, for sure. But once there, immigrants have, as European immigrants did a century ago, started businesses, gained education, and participated in civic life . . . Today's immigrants of color are revitalizing rural America."

DISCOVERING A NEW WORLD

In summary, the author concludes: "This moment is challenging us to finally settle this question: Who is an American, and what are we one to another? We have to admit that the question is harder for us than in most other countries, because we are the world's most radical experiment in democracy, a nation of ancestral strangers that has to work to find connection even as we grow more diverse every day.

"Politics offers two visions of why all the peoples of the world have met here: one in which we are nothing more than competitors, and another in which perhaps the proximity of so much difference forces us to admit our common humanity. The choice between these two visions has never been starker. To a nation riven with anxiety about who belongs, many in power have made it their overarching goal to sow distrust about the goodness of The Other. They are holding on, white knuckled, to a tiny idea of 'We the People', denying the beauty of what we are becoming. They're warning that demographic changes are the unmaking of America. What I've seen on my journey is that they are the fulfillment of America. What they say is a threat is, in fact, our country's salvation–for when a nation founded on a belief in racial hierarchy truly rejects that belief, then and only then will we have discovered a New World."

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One of the Wonders of Pop Music–All Things Must Pass
Posted - Apr 23, 2021
George Harrison was tired of being a Beatle. He was tired of working with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who over the years had rejected so many of his songs. Harrison's frustrations came to a head in 1968, during the acrimonious recording sessions that produced the Beatles' double LP (a.k.a. "The White Album"). Particularly galling to Harrison was Lennon-McCartney's rejection of two of his best songs, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "All Things Must Pass". Only after a heated exchange, did John and Paul relent and agree to record, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps".

That Fall, George Harrison traveled to Woodstock in upstate New York to meet with Bob Dylan's back-up band. Now calling themselves simply "The Band" they had released a critically acclaimed album, called "Music From Big Pink". Harrison loved the honesty of their music, as well as The Band's creative equality that contrasted strikingly with Lennon-McCartney's dominance of the Beatles. At the same time, he began hanging out with Dylan, and wrote a number of new songs, including one he co-wrote with Dylan, entitled, "I'd Have You Any Time". He also began playing guitar again, which he had neglected during the Beatles' psychedelic phase (when he concentrated on mastering the exotic Indian sitar).

GET BACK

Harrison returned to London as the Beatles began working on a follow-up to "The White Album", an ambitious record they would self-produce, that would return the band to its Rock 'N' Roll roots. Interestingly, the recording sessions would be filmed live. As it turned out, the album, tentatively entitled "Get Back", was too ambitious. The band could not deliver on its vision, and between takes squabbled incessantly. Harrison, meanwhile, had recruited a black rhythm-and-blues singer named Billy Preston to audition for the Beatles' fledgling record label, Apple Records. Lennon and McCartney were so impressed with Preston's jazz stylings on the keyboard, that they invited him to sit in on the "Get Back" sessions. It proved to be an inspired decision, as the recording sessions perked up immediately.

However, when the "Get Back" sessions concluded, no one was happy with the results. The songs were a mishmash of styles with nothing of substance to make them sound of a whole. Even their long-time producer George Martin, who was called in to rescue them, could no nothing with the stillborn sessions. Even Paul McCartney who spear-headed the project, had no answers. With Yoko Ono having replaced him as Lennon's soulmate, McCartney was in something of a funk, and did something that was heretofore unthinkable–he threatened to quit.

Meanwhile, McCartney's gospel tune, "Let It Be" was released as a single, and topped the charts, which renewed everyone's belief that the Beatle's magic was still working. However, a year elapsed, with nothing being done about the lifeless "Get Back" session tapes. It was at this point that Harrison suggested they call in famed "Wall of Sound" producer Phil Spector, to see if he could fix what everyone agreed had been a disaster. (Spector was on record as saying it was his dream to produce the Beatles; now would be his chance). He remixed some songs, added strings and brass to others, eliminated a few, and added Lennon's brilliant "Across the Universe" to the playlist, and renamed the album "Let It Be."

In the meantime, Paul McCartney, who had NOT quit, strongly suggested the Beatles return to the studio, put George Martin back in control, and record a new album. The result was their masterpiece, "Abbey Road". Ironically, the best songs arguably were, "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun", both by George Harrison.

Harrison's latest songs, surprised the critics. What would be his contribution on the next Beatles' album? As it turned out, their next (and last album), was "Let It Be", released in conjunction with the "Let It Be" documentary, about six months after "Abbey Road." By that time, McCartney had walked out for good, and was busy recording his first solo album, a clear indication that the most successful pop band in history, was no more.

Having a large backlog of songs, Harrison was free to showcase them on a solo album of his own. He hired Phil Spector as producer, recruited a number of musicians he admired, including Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Eric Clapton (and his supremely talented backup band), Ringo Star, and a friend from the Beatles' Hamburg days, bassist Klaus Voormann, and recorded an ambitious three-disc album that was destined to eclipse all post-Beatles' solo albums. The album was entitled, ALL THINGS MUST PASS.

Of course, a producer as great as Phil Spector, is only as good as the songs he has to work with. Spector had spent the better part of his career working with some of the best songwriters in the business, but was stunned when first learning of the quality–and quantity–of Harrison's backlog of songs. "I went to George's Friar Park home," recalled Spector, "and he said, 'I have a few ditties for you to hear.' It was endless! He had literally hundreds of songs and each one he played was better than the last. He had all this emotion built up when it was released to me.'"

HARRISON'S BACKLOG OF SONGS

Indeed, Harrison had accumulated songs from as far back as 1966 (both "Isn't It a Pity" and "Art of Dying" date from this time), most of which would appear on ALL THINGS MUST PASS. He co-wrote at least two songs with Dylan, one of which, "I'd Have You Anytime", was used as as the album's opening track. Dylan also encouraged him to record one of his newest songs, "If Not For You", which Harrison retooled into a catchy country tune. Also Included were "Hear Me Lord" and "Let It Down", both rejected by Lennon-McCartney during the ill-fated "Get Back" sessions. It was during the "Get Back" sessions that Harrison became so upset with Lennon and McCartney's obtuseness, that he put down his guitar and walked out. He returned to the sessions about a week later, but during his time away composed, "Wah-Wah" and "Run of the Mill" as expressions of his frustration. Both songs would find their way onto ALL THINGS MUST PASS. The Band's influence on Harrison can be heard on "What is Life", which he wrote in London, after having returned from Woodstock.

A new song, "Behind That Locked Door" was Harrison's message of encouragement to Bob Dylan, written the night before the latter's comeback performance at the Isle of White Music Festival. Harrison initially began composing "My Sweet Lord" as an exercise in writing a gospel song, that quickly turned into something surprising (as the song's hallelujah chorus seamlessly evolved into a hare krishna chant).

Another song, "Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let it Roll)" was a tribute to the original owner of Harrison's Friar Park estate. "Apple Scruffs" was another tribute song, this one written in appreciation of the many Beatle fans who congregated outside the Abbey Road recording studio. "I Dig Love" came as the result of Harrison's experimenting with the slide guitar. "Beware of Darkness" and "Awaiting On All of You" were two more songs influenced by Harrison's interest in Hinduism.

PLETHORA OF NEW SOUNDS

The first song recorded was "Wah-Wah". During the playback, Harrison was shocked at the amount of echo Spector had added, since the performance had sounded relatively dry through his headphones. Klaus Voormann immediately "loved" the sound, as did Eric Clapton; while John Lennon (having dropped in on the session) was reportedly "bowled over." Harrison later said: "I grew to like it."

According to musical biographer, Simon Leng, ALL THINGS MUST PASS represents the completion of Harrison's "musical-philosophical" odyssey, in which his 1966–68 immersion in Indian music found a Western equivalent in gospel music. While identifying hard rock, country, and Motown as influences, Leng writes of the "plethora of new sounds and influences" that Harrison had absorbed through 1969, and now incorporated, including "Hare Krishna chants, gospel ecstasy, and Southern blues-rock."

Recording proved to be a massive undertaking, with a large, ever-growing, ever-changing cast of musicians, the largeness of which Harrison referred to as being on "a Cecil B. DeMille" scale.

Although Harrison had estimated that the album would take no more than eight weeks to complete, it turned out that rehearsal, recording, overdubbing, mixing, and mastering, consumed eight months (January to September, 1970). Part of the reason was Harrison's need to make regular visits to Liverpool to see his ailing mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer. Spector's erratic behavior was another factor. Harrison later referred to Spector needing "eighteen cherry brandies" before he could start work, a situation that forced much of the production duties onto Harrison's shoulders. At one point, Spector fell over in the studio and broke his arm. He subsequently withdrew from the project for "health reasons".

In Spector's absence, Harrison completed the backing tracks and carried out preliminary overdubs. He then sent tapes of early mixes to Spector for a critique. Spector replied by a letter dated August 19. Among his comments were detailed suggestions on how to give "Let It Down" an even bigger sound. Spector also made suggestions about overdubbing more instruments and orchestration on some tracks, while encouraging Harrison to focus on his vocals and to avoid hiding his voice behind the instrumentation.

ALL THINGS MUST PASS was released on November 27, 1970 in the United States, and on November 30 in Great Britain. Apple Records issued "My Sweet Lord" as the album's first single. Discussing the song's cultural impact, one music critic credits "My Sweet Lord" with being "as pervasive on radio and in youth consciousness as anything the Beatles had ever recorded."

Despite being a pricey three-record box set, ALL THINS MUST PASS rose to number 1 on the UK album chart, while "My Sweet Lord" topped the singles chart. In America, ALL THINGS MUST PASS spent seven weeks at number 1 on the Billboard Top LP's chart, while "My Sweet Lord" held the top spot for several weeks on Billboard's Hot 100.

SIX-TIMES PLATINUM

ALL THINGS MUST PASS was awarded a gold disc by the Recording Industry Association of America on December 17,1970, and it has since been certified six times platinum. According to John Bergstrom of PopMatters, as of January 2011, ALL THINGS MUST PASS had sold more copies than John Lennon's IMAGINE and McCartney and Wings' BAND ON THE RUN combined. After Harrison's death in 2011, music critics at TIME magazine rated ALL THINGS MUST PASS as the best and "most Beatlesque" of all ex-Beatles' solo albums.

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An American Story
Posted - Apr 07, 2021
The first time Arshay Cooper laid his eyes on one of the "long, thin, snazzy white boats" of crew racing was in the gym at Manley Career Academy high school. He thought, "Oh no . . . you ain't gonna get black people rowing down the lake like slaves."

However, with the encouragement of coach Jessica and program sponsor Ken Alpart, Arshay Cooper had a change of heart, and signed up. The decision changed his life, and is the subject of new book, "The Most Beautiful Thing," by Arshay Cooper. Cooper's story is the story of a poor kid from the wrong side of town, who through dedication and hard work, beats the odds and succeeds; indeed, Cooper's story is a decidedly American story.

Before rowing, Cooper's life's prospects were not promising. He was not a good student, not popular in school, and not particularly motivated, other than to become a short-order cook. He lived in a two bedroom house in one of the most economically depressed neighborhoods on Chicago's West Side. His mother was a recovering alcoholic, and his father was seldom home. As much as he resisted the idea of crew racing, he was intrigued by the sales pitch of sponsor Ken Alpart.

"There are no all-black public high school crew teams," Alpart said. "You will be the first. . . . I went to Flower Career Academy, Marshall, and many public schools in the area and they all rejected it, saying this sport wasn't for their students, that it would not work." (note: It was the principal at Manley High School who gave Alpart the green light).

"We are not just trying to give you the opportunity to row," Alpart added. "We want to give you the opportunity to think outside the box, be young entrepreneurs, go to Ivy League colleges, and travel the United States."

"Seems too good to be true," was Cooper's first reaction, but he and seven of his friends signed up anyway to see what it was all about.

What Cooper discovered, was the sport was mostly about training, doing a lot of running, and working to exhaustion on a rowing machine called the erg. While coach Jessica helped them master timing and the proper rowing technique, Cooper and his teammates spent a great deal of time working with Victor, their strength and conditioning coach. Most of them had never been swimmers before and were afraid of water, something coach Jessica helped them overcome by teaching them how to swim. Ken Alpert, meanwhile, taught them about "eating clean"–establishing and maintaining a diet of good nutrition.

That first year was brutal, and about half the students dropped out. But those who stuck it out, were rewarded with a trip to Philadelphia and a visit to the college campus of Pennsylvania University, where they met a number of college students who were themselves rowers. Later that spring they entered their first competition where they started strong, only to crash their boat against the brick wall that lined the water course. They recovered and finished third. "Every one does it," coach Jessica told them. The lesson was clear–they were strong rowers, but not yet working as a team.

In time, they mastered timing, and working as a unit became a formidable team, an experience Cooper describes as "a most beautiful thing."

Still the team suffered a number of setbacks, as various students dropped out of the program, while Victor, their popular strength and conditioning coach, also left the program. Due to his commitment and willingness to work hard, Cooper was made team captain, and was asked to recruit replacements. Meanwhile, a football coach, who was impressed with Cooper's training habits, tried to recruit him to join the football team. By then, Cooper had developed a strong relationship with Ken Alpart, and decided to stick it out with crew racing.

As promised Alpart took the crew team to a number of university campuses and several fine restaurants. He also brought them to his home, introduced them to his wife and young daughter, and exposed them to a number of business opportunities outside the sport. For Cooper, this meant special culinary training and a job at one of the best restaurants in Chicago.

Alpart not only funded the program, but was the glue that held them together, a good listener who took a special interest in each of them.

After working hard over the summer, in the fall Alpart introduced them to their new strength and conditioning coach, a relentless drill instructor named Marc, who quickly earned their respect. Writes Cooper: "Marc is the best coach that we could ever ask for. When we run, he runs farther. When we do push-ups, he does more. When we have study sessions, he corrects us. When we watch rowing videos, he quizzes us, and when he sees physical results, he puts us on the erg machine and he evaluates us. We call him the Marcantor."

It's the Marcantor who coaches Cooper to his first victory, at the Chicago Indoor Rowing competition, where the activity is not on the water, but on the erg machine. The competition is mostly from all-white high schools in the greater Chicago area. Writes Cooper: "Marc tells me that no one here is in my league. You're stronger than any kid I've seen on the erg machine," says Marc. "Remember, you have a right to be here and a right to win. . . ."

"I sit on the erg machine," writes Cooper, "and Marc is right there next to me to coach me. He is more intense than I am . . . I drive back with all the strength I can gather from my legs." Fatigue inevitably sets in. "My arms are giving out. Marc has to push me through the last couple of minutes yelling 'It's the heart and mind from here." After a couple more minutes of intense rowing, Marc yells, "Stop! Look around; everyone else is still rowing."

Cooper wins and is awarded a gold medal, and afterward is interviewed for a story in "Rowing News."

Cooper worked so hard, that a number of people urged him to slow down and enjoy himself. "People always tell me that I'm young and should enjoy being a teenager, but to me it's only temporary fun. Being a teenager is all about fake friends, being broke and a constant battle for popularity."

That spring the Manley Crew Team faces its biggest rowing event, at a high school in upper Michigan. Due to his strong work ethic, Cooper's teammates now call him "Mini-Marc." About the coming race, he says: "I know, without a shadow of a doubt, it is our time. We've given everything this years for today. It is our moment.

"Basketball, football, and baseball couldn't have done what rowing has done to this group. It has taken nonathletic, nerdy, small, broken, and uncool kids and made them a family. Every time we get into the water, we are adding something to it that rowing has never done before . . . When I look at (my teammates), it's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."

The race is a 1,500-meter event with six boats competing. At the start the Manley crew team jump out into an early lead. With 400 meters to go, they have the race won easily. It's at this point that Cooper loses his concentration. It only takes a second, but he turns around to have a look at the other boats and loses his focus. Writes Cooper: "My oar drops in the water a half second too late and it swings toward me as I lose control. The oar flies up and slaps me right below my neck."

In that second, the two closest boats caught and passed them. Cooper grabs his oar and tries to start rowing again, but as he explains, "It's hard to get back in sync again." But he does. Rowing strongly as a team, "We catch the second boat, but I see we are too late–they cross the finish line ahead of us. We finish third.

"I drop my body forward onto my lap and cry . . . I am the leader and I've let everyone down. I took my eye off what was ahead of me and to see what was behind me, and I'm paying for it. Not just me, but my entire team. My actions caused others to fail.

"In this moment, with my face in my lap and my heart in my stomach, I can hear my teammates saying thank you. I look up and the teams that have passed the finish line are giving us head nods and thumbs-up. They are all showing us the upmost respect . . . " Meanwhile, Marc who has been running beside them, stands nearby. "I look over at Marc's face. He doesn't show any signs of disappointment, but I know he is. Any coach would be. The only thing I do see on his face is pride. He's never seen anything like this in all years of rowing.

"We're a group of black kids from the turbulent West Side of Chicago, surrounded by a group of Midwestern white kids all sharing praise and respect in the middle of a lake. We are all honored to be a part of this and rowing has helped us achieve Ken's vision for our lives. He once said win or lose, rowing is the tool you use to fix things. Now I understand that. When I was angry, the erg helped; when I needed peace the water helped, when I needed discipline, the sport helped. Although I feel bad and unworthy of anything right now, I can't help but think a couple of years ago some of us were basically the rejects and outcasts of our communities, but now we are considered the solution. We know who we are."

In the epilogue, Cooper discusses what became of his teammates. Bottom line: they took what they learned from crew racing and made a success of their lives. Says the author: "After high school, I took a year and dedicated my life to full service at AmeriCorps working with young children in my community. I then kicked off my career of being a chef by attending Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago and taking extra classes in Le Cordon Bleu London."

His career in the kitchen of some of the finest restaurants in Chicago, led to becoming the personal chef for movie sets, professional athletes, and private events. After that he started a young chef program teaching public school kids the career path in the field of cooking in hospitality. Rowing was never far from his mind, however, and he soon founded the only New York City public school rowing team at East Side Community School for black and Latino students.

The model and success of the programs made him a highly sought-after motivational speaker and consultant for many rowing programs around the country, as well as in Germany and Spain. Today he lives in Brooklyn, New York with his family.

- END -
 
Work of My Sons
 

Morning Softly - Water Echoes Movement
-Released in 2014. Bill made guitar riffs and synth tracks at home, got Lya Finston to write some lyrics and sing, and got Scott to provide some bass.

Morning Softly - Early Eerie Feeling
-Recorded in 2014. Songs written by Bill, at home. Synthesizers were added later. Some drumming done by Brendan Lenihan.

Scott Nisley - Brick City Skies
-Released in 2014. With his piano melodies and vocals, Scott entrusted the production of his album to several studio musicians.

The 45's - Roof-Hopping
-Recorded in 2010. A collaborative effort between Scott and Bill Nisley, Adam Sherman, and Zach Belka.


Oh, Yeah...
 

Richard Nisley's Brothers in Cars
Thanksgiving Day, 1967. From L to R: my brothers David, Charles, and Rob. Photo by John Nisley.
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