‘Come Over and Help Us’: Thanksgiving and the Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

‘Come over and help us!’

The poor, the destitute and the spiritually depraved are beckoning. Please come over.

It’s an offer that God-fearing Christians couldn’t turn down. More accurately, a self-issued invitation, a laconic justification with an open ending. Please, come . . . we need your help.

On this American Thanksgiving weekend, Americans of all backgrounds, races and creeds have been celebrating a holiday of blessing and gratitude. It is a national holiday and a celebration conjoined by diverse communities across the country. As a day of national blessing, it has become an unofficial Christian holiday. Many communities across the country host ecumenical worship services often on the eve of the holiday, and more generally, the prelude to Thanksgiving is a time of Christian harvest festivals. It’s a national holiday largely stripped of the colors and overt patriotism of its July counterpart. Red, white and blue are instead orange and shades of brown. Fireworks give way to Black Friday. Watermelon to pumpkin pie. It’s less pretentious than Christmas; there is less national exclusivism than at the Fourth of July. Yet, in each its own way, the holiday offers a genuine opportunity for deep-felt gratitude to God, family and the greater community.

While the turkey and pumpkin pie seem requisite, the holiday can easily be amended, shaped and transformed as a celebration of gratitude for one’s own cultural background while providing a relatively innocuous means of participating in the larger national narrative. Or, so it seems.

For a whole range of reasons, none of which really have to do with giving thanks, Thanksgiving is by far my favorite American holiday. Four days of food and football in the crisp dark days of Autumn. And, thank God, I don’t work in retail.


By its nature, Thanksgiving is a holiday that evokes the past, and the legendary Thanksgiving narrative underscores a struggling community’s need for help.

It began with the 1620 autumn crossing of the Atlantic on the Mayflower by a group of English religious separatists, commonly known as the Pilgrims. A cold, extreme winter, during which they suffered from exposure, scurvy and various diseases, killed half of the original 102 passengers. The spring brought the miraculous appearance of Squanto, a Pawtuxtet Indian and a former English slave, who, per fortuna, spoke English. He helped the Pilgrims plant corn and catch fish. He helped them make friends with their neighbors, the Wampanoag.

So, the Pilgrims didn’t all die. The corn grew. The harvest came, and the festival followed. In the fall of 1621, the ‘first’ Thanksgiving feast was held between the Pilgrims and Indians at Plymouth Plantation in present-day Massachusetts.

Yet, for all the help the Native Americans gave, Thanksgiving has turned out not to be such an innocuous means of participating in the larger national narrative.

battle_of_mystic_fort_drawing_editIn the following years, Puritans, distinct from the Pilgrims, also began arriving in New England, and our story now fast forwards to 1637 during the latter stages of the Pequot War (1634-38).  The conflict pitted the Pequot Indians against an alliance of colonists, mostly Puritans, who were connected with the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  On May 26, 1637, English settlers under the command of Captain John Mason with the aid of some Native American allies surrounded and attached a Pequot village along the Mystic River in present-day Connecticut (see image above). The Mystic Massacre, which wiped out the entire village, killed more than 700 men, women and children.

In the aftermath of the massacre, the governor of Massachusetts declared: ‘This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots’. According to some modern historians, the national festival of Thanksgiving was actually founded upon the ashes of the Pequot War.

In any case, by 1637, ‘help’ as a central motif had clearly dissipated from the Thanksgiving narrative.

It all comes to a patronizing point is the official seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was granted in 1629 by King Charles I. The colony’s seal featured an Indian holding a bow and an arrow with the words ‘Come over and help us’ rising out of his mouth. The figure is wearing nothing but a loincloth made of leaves. The not-so-subtle imagery includes an illusion to the Indian as the savage noble who is holding an instrument of war while trapped in a primitive paradise. Culturally unadvanced, intellectually inferior and spiritually darkened, especially with respect to the patronizing Puritan.

The seal beckons the Christian to mission and evangelism — in reality, to actions too often expressed in events such as the Mystic Massacre. Of course, the Indians weren’t looking for help, nor did they receive any. The seal was simply a self-interested invitation to come and ‘help yourself’ and an officially smug reminder to the Puritans that God was on their side.

Whatever we make of the myths and origins of Thanksgiving, the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony is an official stamp of the attitudes and perspectives of the first generation of American thanks-givers. It’s an image we still need to reckon with.


For a whole range of reasons, none of which really have to do with giving thanks, Thanksgiving is by far my favorite American holiday. For all that it means — can mean or should mean — I wish you a blessed and thoughtful Thanksgiving weekend.

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Eating Sushi with Sempo: The Life of Chiune Sugihara

He who Saves A Life, Saves the Entire World (The Talmud)

I’m due to travel to Los Angeles in the next couple of weeks to pick up a visa at the Israeli consulate. When I do so, I hope to have time to swing through Little Tokyo for some take-away sushi and a visit to the Chiune Sugihara memorial. The memorial is a bronze likeness of the Japanese hero sitting on a concrete bench with a visa in his hand. There’s enough room for the two of us to have lunch together.


???????????????????????????????I really don’t have much in common with Chiune but our paths keep crossing. I was in his house last month in Lithuania looking through his stuff.

Earlier this summer, I didn’t even know who he was.


SugiharaChiune ‘Sempo’ Sugihara (1900 – 1986) was a Japanese diplomat who found himself stationed in Kaunas, Lithuania at the outbreak of World War II.

When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Jewish refugees fled east to Lithuania, which, at the time, was an independent country with its own population of some 210,000 Jews. In June 1941, the Nazis took Soviet-controlled Lithuania, and by the end of the year, an estimated 195,000 Jews would be murdered.

On November 23, 1939, two months after the invasion of Poland, Sugihara opened the Japanese consulate in Kaunas to monitor events in the region. The nearest Japanese embassy was in Riga, Latvia.

Then from the west came the Soviet Union, which occupied independent Lithuania in June 1940. Soviet occupation meant the closure of foreign embassies and consulates, and Sugihara was soon forced out of Kaunas, taking the train to Berlin on September 4, 1940.

However, by the time Chiune left town, he had a heroic case of writer’s cramp.

???????????????????????????????As safe havens for Jews were shrinking in Lithuania , the Japanese consulate became an unlikely house of salvation. Against the strict orders of the Tokyo home office and at great risk to his career, if not his life, Sugihara handwrote an unknown number of transit visas in July and August 1940 helping some 6,000 Jews to travel through Japan (estimates range between 2,100 and 3,400 hand-written visas).  As he departed Kaunas, he was still writing, throwing the last of his signed visas out of the window as the train was leaving the station. He reportedly pleaded, ‘Please forgive me. I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best’. A voice from the throng of refugees surrounding the departing train exclaimed, ‘Sugihara. We’ll never forget you. I’ll surely see you again!’  Years later, Sugihara would be reunited with some of the survivors.  

???????????????????????????????Sugihara’s visas allowed the holder and his family to leave Soviet-occupied Lithuania, travel across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway and board a ferry to Japan where they could stay for two weeks before continuing onwards to a final destination. Sugihara saved approximately six thousand Jews, although some estimates are higher.

In 1985, Israel honored him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Later this year when I get settled in Jerusalem, I’m planning a pilgrimage of silence to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum where Sugihara’s name is on the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous.

Sugihara’s story is certainly not unknown, yet on the world stage he sits in the shadow of a certain Mr. Schindler. His wife penned his biography, Visas for Life (1995), and his life has inspired a handful of films and documentaries, including Visas and Virtue (1997), which won the Academy Award for Live Action Short Film. The Huffington Post published a nice article on him just last January (2013).

The honorary Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk (1896-1976), belongs to the same conversation. Stationed as the director of the Philips’ Lithuanian operations, Zwartendijk assumed the duties of honorary consul a day before the Soviet occupation of the country in mid-June 1940. He issued 2,350 visas over a ten-day period for the Dutch island of Curacao before the Soviets shut down the consulate on August 3, 1940. 

The Sugihara Foundation – Diplomats for Life was founded in 1999 by the joint efforts of Lithuanian and Belgian citizens in order to perpetuate the memory and heroic deeds of the wartime consuls, Sugihara and Zwartendijk, and to promote the idea of civic society, tolerance and the human spirit. In 2000, the foundation opened the Memorial Education Center in the former Japanese Consulate in Kaunas. Since 2008, the Sugihara House has included the ‘Visas for Life’ exhibition, an interpretive museum providing information on the lives of the two foreign consuls as well as stories of the survivor families.     

A modest gift counter sells books and videos. I bought a small booklet and a pin with the two flags of Japan and Lithuania. The guest book, with many entries in Japanese and Hebrew, contains comments from around the world.

After visiting the house for most of an hour, I stepped out into the warmth of the Kaunas summer day.  It was a peaceful, almost dull August afternoon, and I stood outside the Sugihara House in a quiet, unassuming neighborhood on a hill overlooking the bus station. My historical imagination threatened to fail me, as I struggled with some difficulty to imagine the crowds and the cries, the parents and children, the hopes and desperation, the individual stories and the collective humanity that once surrounded Sempo’s house during the long summer days of 1940. But they were there, all around me, and encircled by these images, I walked back down into the streets of Kaunas. 

In my own small, if inadequate, way, I am connecting with the story, which has grabbed my imagination, even if I only accidentally stumbled across it. For some unknown reason, I took an August vacation to Lithuania, and now I hope to have lunch soon with Sugihara in LA before paying tribute to him later this fall in Jerusalem.

Visas for life!


After Kaunas, Sugihara’s diplomatic career took him to Prague, Königsberg and Bucharest. His Romanian service ended with an eighteen-month stint in a Soviet POW camp. In 1947, he was asked to resign from the Japanese Foreign Service. He died in Kamakura, Japan on July 31, 1986.

My pilgrimage to LA to pick up my own visa will not a journey in the footsteps of my new hero. To my knowledge, Sugihara never set foot in Los Angeles. Rather, the Little Tokyo monument is a monument materializing community memory rather than marking the ground of a historic event. Moreover, it’s memory in Diaspora. It’s just a simple concrete bench in LA connecting cultures, commemorating events and memorializing people from all sides of the world. That’s something I can definitely sit on.            


Chiune_Sugihara_-_杉原_千畝Early in his career while studying Russian in Manchuria, Sugihara converted to Orthodox Christianity. Although not formally canonized, Sugihara is considered a saint in some Orthodox churches.

To be sure, the heavens are well-pleased with Chiune. In 2000, a new-found asteroid, 25893 Sugihara, was named after Japan’s former consul to Kaunas. Thanks, Sempo! Meet ya in LA! 

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From Leeds to Little Rock: What Kind of Asian are You?

Leeds Bradford AirportI was riding in a taxi cab through West Yorkshire earlier this month. It was four in the morning, and I was on my way to the airport to return to Italy. I don’t often take cabs, let alone chat up cab drivers.  But the bloke was talkative, and so I followed suit. Next thing I knew we were in a lively discussion about race and culture.

His mother was from Nepal; his father from Kashmir. He was born in the former, and had lived in Britain for years.  Then he said something that exclusively linked him to my aunt back in the States. My aunt was born in Korea, but was adopted as a toddler by my grandparents and grew up in Arkansas where she still lives.

o-WHAT-KIND-OF-ASIAN-ARE-YOU-VIDEO-facebookMy Arkansan aunt and this British gentleman are my only points of reference for a YouTube video entitled, What kind of Asian are you? Earlier this summer, my Korean aunt shared the link on facebook, and so I actually knew what my Nepalese/Kashmiri cab driver was talking about when he mentioned it to me at 4:15 in the morning.

The video mimics interracial conversations commonly encountered in Western countries. Two American joggers are stretching in a park. The man (M) is a ‘regular American’; the woman (W) is ‘some kind of Asian’. The man inquires.

M: Where are you from? Your English is perfect.

W: San Diego. We speak English there.

M: Ah, no, where are you from?

W: Well, I was born in Orange County, but I never actually lived there.

M: Ah, I mean before that.

W: Before I was born?

M: Well, where are your people from?

W: Well, my great grandma was from Seoul.

M: Korea. I knew it. I said she was either Japanese or Korean, but I was leaning more towards Korean.

From this point on, you need to watch the video – as well as the subsequent video of the same actors reading real comments by viewers.

There is something in the video that strikes a chord with my Asian aunt and my Asian acquaintance – now living on two separate continents, neither of which are Asia.

We live in a virtual world, and videos go viral on a daily basis. Some of the vilest and most explicit racism can be found on internet discussion boards, but the same media also allows the occasional video to emerge as a talking point for race and culture. An ease with irony and sarcasm – and a sense of humor – are often advised.

But identity often precedes dialogue. As the title implies, What kind of an Asian are you? deals first of all with the common experience of encountering an European-imposed construct of ‘being Asian’ that labels, categorizes and stereotypes those that look – in the eyes of the European beholder – as if they should be from somewhere else. At worst, the message is that you / they don’t belong here and never will. At best, it reduces the ‘Asian other’ to an object of curiosity, although there is a place for query in interracial discourse.

That my Korean-Arkansan aunt and my Nepalese-Yorkshire cabbie both mentioned this video to me suggests not only the wide reach the video has in appealing to issues of identity among those belonging, even in part, to the wide and diverse spectrum of Asian descent, but, where the word, Asian, invokes different images in the United States than it does in Britain, my two sets of reference points – Kashmir and Korea, Leeds and Little Rock – also reveal how broadly and successfully the European has been able to cast the cloak of indiscernible Asian otherness.

Enjoy the videos, and let me know what you think!     


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Attend to the Orphans: Smiles and Suffering in War-Torn Iraq

Ola Hassan is a dentist living and working in London, England. In March 2013, she traveled for the first time to Iraq, her parents’ native land, on a dental mission with Global Kindness Foundation. 

Ola and Fatima

My first patient: My little friend Fatima

We all get them, even dentists; you know those forwarded e-mails of no value.  The ones which we just skim through or hit the delete button before we even read them. Well, my journey to Iraq began because one day I opened one of those e-mails.

The email came all the way from Australia. It had an attachment about a dental mission and contained these simple words:  ‘Ola, I think you might be interested in this…’

It wasn’t wrong; in fact, I was immediately interested.  A few months later I found myself at London’s Heathrow airport, where I met a bunch of strangers who were soon to be friends.

The destination: Iraq – a very war-torn Iraq.

The mission: to bring healthy smiles to the faces of orphaned Iraqi children.

Let me give you a little bit of a background about myself.  Both my parents were born and brought up in Iraq, but I was raised in Britain and had never set foot there myself. They both fled the country and Saddam’s atrocities during the war in the 1980’s.  For years I had thought of visiting Iraq, and finally, in March 2013, I traveled there with the wonderful people of ‘Global Kindness Foundation’, a Canadian-based charity which provides dental healthcare to underprivileged people worldwide.

We flew into Najaf, a city about 100 miles south of the capital, Baghdad.  After being questioned for hours at the airport and after having lost half of our medical and dental supplies (a whole other story!), we set off to get some rest for what would be a very busy first day of work.

As our coach pulled up to our accommodations, I looked out of the window and was overwhelmed by what I saw  – a golden dome in the distance.  For those who do not know the history of Najaf, it is the resting place of a man known as Imam Ali, the son of Abi Talib.  History tells us of his nobleness, his ability to provide a voice for the voiceless, and his awe-inspiring courage. He was martyred at the age of 63 in the year 661 CE and was buried in Najaf. The golden dome is his shrine, and today millions of people far and wide visit this shrine to pay their respects.

The Shrine of Imam Ali, Najaf, Iraq

The Shrine of Imam Ali, Najaf, Iraq

The reason I mention Imam Ali is because I sensed an overpowering connection between the personality of Imam Ali and my mission in Iraq. He stressed to those around him to be kind to orphans. In his last will, he stated:  ‘Attend to their (orphans) nutrition and do not forget their interests in the middle of yours’.   Imam Ali was known as ‘the father of the orphans’.

For me personally, I felt extremely privileged to stand before his shrine and felt thankful for the opportunity to do what I could for the orphans who were living in the very same city of his resting place.

And so it all began. Early the following morning, we went to set up our dental clinic in the place where the orphans go to school. I had no idea what to expect, but the warm welcome from the children, who rushed to huddle around us, instantly told me that the next few weeks would be one of the most amazing and humbling experiences of my life.

Courtyard Dental ClinicWe were given a large dusty courtyard for our make-shift dental clinic (photo: left), and I quickly said goodbye to the idea of a shiny, squeaky-clean surgery like the ones back home in England, and I said hello to the challenging conditions of Iraq! I had never appreciated the humble light bulb until we were forced to work in a room without one!

As I visited each class, I could not help but make a comparison with the bright, child-friendly and airy classrooms I had when I was little. But to these kids, their classrooms were a haven. We screened each child and made a note of what treatment they would need. Fortunately, some only needed preventative care. The majority of children, however, needed comprehensive dental work, from simple fillings to multiple extractions.

Iraqi classroom

Screening kids in classroomIf it wasn’t for the positive attitude and the humorous nature of my dental team, I’m not sure I would have survived after treating my first patient, a young girl named Fatima. She was very shy and very nervous. Luckily, I could speak Arabic with her, but this was still not enough to put her at ease. She didn’t have a mum or dad to turn to for comfort, just a whole load of Canadians and a Brit! We were all strangers to her.  That moment hit me hard, and I found myself fighting back the tears.

When she eventually agreed to lie on the chair, I began her treatment. She had a lot of cavities for a little girl and had clearly put up with a fair amount of dental pain. Halfway through her treatment, I noticed a silent tear run down her cheek. We had been debriefed by our team leader the night before.  He warned us this would be one of the most emotional challenges we had ever faced as dentists. We didn’t have the luxury of providing sedation to the more nervous patient; we just had to accept using what we had. ‘Just keep reminding yourself what our mission here is’, he said. We were the children’s only access to oral healthcare and even though it was hard putting the kids through such a difficult experience, ultimately they would be free of pain and would lead healthier lives.

As if I had not already been close to tears, little Fatima came up to me after I had completed her treatment and gave me a heartfelt hug. In her own way, she was saying thank you. Little did she know that it was she who actually deserved to be thanked.   My contribution to this cause was so insignificant to what I gained through meeting her and all the other brave boys and girls – a deep sense of gratitude for what I have and an overall more positive approach to life.

Dentist with patientAs a group of six dentists and more than twenty amazing volunteers from non-dental backgrounds, we managed to treat almost 300 children and some of their teachers. Each child had their own story, but all of them had one thing in common – hardship, real hardship. They have suffered in ways that are very difficult for us in Britain or in other developed countries to comprehend. I wish I could say that I did something to truly change their lives.  I have, in fact, done no such thing. It would take a lot more than a mere filling or an extraction of a tooth to do that.

Mother Theresa once said, ‘Peace begins with a smile…’ and ‘Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing’. I hope that our efforts have bought some healthier smiles to these beautiful children who may not always have much to smile about.

Iraqi soldierStepping outside the confines of the school, you can see that hardship extends throughout the country. For each city we traveled to in Iraq – Kerbala, Samarra, Baghdad – there was a checkpoint every few miles. There is no sense of security there, no sense of inner peace, but somehow these people keep trying  – and I hope, with the children, they will keep smiling.

People of Iraq – thank you – lessons learned!

Would I put myself through this physical and emotional roller coaster ride again?  Absolutely, I would be stupid not to.

Dentists with patient


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Slaves and Buffalo Soldiers

President Obama’s recent establishment of five new national monuments (March 25, 2013) demonstrates how the creation of historical commemorative landscape is an ongoing cultural and political activity.  Of the five new monuments, two of them have direct intercultural context, specifically recognizing the heritage of non-dominant cultures in the United States: the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers Monument in Ohio and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland.

More on these later in the week, but below is a summary of the two new parks.


The Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers Monument in Ohio: The monument will preserve the home of Col. Charles Young (1864–1922), a distinguished officer in the United States Army who was the third African American to graduate from West Point and the first to achieve the rank of Colonel. Young also served as one of the early Army superintendents of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks, before the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916. The national headquarters of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, of which Col. Young was a member, made the property available for acquisition by the federal government for the purpose of establishing the national monument commemorating Young’s life and accomplishments. The monument, located in Wilberforce, Ohio, will be managed by the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service.


The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland. The monument commemorates the life of the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad who was responsible for helping enslaved people escape from bondage to freedom. The new national park, located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, includes large sections of landscapes that are significant to Tubman’s early life in Dorchester County and evocative of her life as a slave and conductor of the Underground Railroad. The park includes Stewart’s Canal, dug by hand by free and enslaved people between 1810 and the 1830s and where Tubman learned important outdoor skills when she worked in the nearby timbering operations with her father. Lands that are part of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, although part of the new national monument, will continue to be managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument also includes the home site of Jacob Jackson, a free black man who used coded letters to help Tubman communicate with family and others.  The monument will also partner with the State of Maryland’s Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park Visitor Center when it opens in 2015. The monument will be managed by the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service.


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Agatha Christie and the Ten Little Indians

And_Then_There_Were_None_First_Edition_Cover_1939What’s red on the outside and black on the inside? The Italian edition of Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel, Ten Little Niggers, published in Italy as Dieci piccoli indiani (Ten Little Indians). 

Christie’s story, also known as And Then There Were None, is about ten strangers, who were invited to an island where they mysteriously died one after the other.

In the original story, Christie uses the reference, nigger, in three different ways. The story is set on an island off the coast of Devon, England, called Nigger Island –‘It got its name from its resemblance to a man’s head — the profile of a negro’.

The second reference is the poem, Ten Little Niggers, a framed copy of which hung in each of the guest rooms. The poem, adapted in 1869 by Frank J. Green from the original, Ten Little Injuns (Septimus Winner, 1868), was already a minstrel show favorite before Christie further popularized it, using its contents to provide the overall framework of her story.    

The third reference to niggers in Christie’s story is to ten small porcelain black statues in the middle of the dinner table, which mysteriously disappear one-by-one in parallel with the deaths of the ten island guests.      

Recognizing the offensive nature of the term, the editor of the first U.S. edition (1940) removed the term, choosing to recast black as red – the book, Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None), was now set on Indian Island, a poem about Indians hung in the room of each guest, and upon each of their deaths, one of the porcelain Indians in the middle of the dinner table mysteriously disappeared.

It is rather unlikely that the New York editor’s decision was a nostalgic nod to Winner’s original nursery rhyme immortalizing the Vanishing Indian. Rather, he was merely following dominant culture logic that an offensive racial epithet can be removed by simply substituting it for an entirely different racial minority with a less (arguably) offensive name.                

This editorial decision (1940) took place well before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball (1947), Brown vs. the Board of Education overturned school segregation (1954) and Martin Luther King, Jr. shared a dream in Washington, DC (1963).  

It was, no doubt, a wise decision not to publish Christie’s original title in the United States and, yet, dominant culture still struggles recognizing the invidious nature of paternalistic racism – rampant in the very phrase, Ten Little Indians.

As for rest of the world, as late as 1977, London was still publishing the work under the title, Ten Little Niggers, which remains the work’s popular international title.

Except in Italy . . .

$(KGrHqZ,!i!E6Qunzeh7BOvSP8jRrg~~60_35 . . . where last autumn, I purchased a number of Agatha Christie books to help improve my Italian. Among the titles was Dieci piccolo indiani (Ten Little Indians), which most strangely contains not a single mention of Indians but rather retains every single reference in Christie’s dark original!

What’s red on the outside and black on the inside?

The Italian edition of Agatha Christie’s 1939 best seller.

Clearly a cultural quark.

Che cosa ne dite? So, what do you think?


Ten little n····r boys going out to dine;

One choked his little self, and then there were nine.

Nine little n····r boys sat up very late;

One overslept himself, and then there were eight.

Eight little n····r boys going down to Devon;

One got left behind, and then there were seven.

Seven little n····r boys chopping up sticks;

One chopped himself in half, and then there were six.

Six little n····r boys playing with a hive;

A bumblebee stung one, and then there were five.

Five little n····r boys going in for law;

One got in Chancery, and then there were four.

Four little n····r boys sailing out to sea;

A red herring swallowed one, and then there were three.

Three little n····r boys going to the zoo;

A big bear hugged one, and then there were two.

Two little n····r boys playing in the sun;

One got all frizzled up, and then there was one.

One little n····r boy left all alone;

He went out and hanged himself, and then there were none.


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Justice Anywhere: In Tribute to Dr Martin Luther King, Jr

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963), ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.

But isn’t the opposite also true? Isn’t justice anywhere also a threat to injustice everywhere – possibly, potentially? Can witnessing acts of justice, or at least the struggle for equality, positively influence long-held prejudices and racist attitudes?

Civil Rights Monument

While King often observed the human heart harden, enfeebled by fear, engulfed in hatred and enflamed by violence, he never lost his belief in the so-called divine possibilities of humankind. Sometimes proof came from the most unlikely of sources, such as this undated letter by Jefferson Poland, now contained in the archives of The King Center:

San Francisco, California

Dear Rev. King:

This is something I think you will want to know.

A few weeks ago a man in Panama City, Florida, one Ross Mullin, sent you a poem which criticized prejudice.

This man was my grandfather. He had been against Jews and Negroes almost all his life. When I had gotten thrown in jail for sit-ins, he had been shocked and angered. Finally, after some 60-odd years of hate, he grew to the point where he wrote you that poem. I had not had time to write him of my pride and joy before I got a telegram telling me he is dead.

As you Christians would put it, he died in a state of grace, newly found. I’m not religious myself, but I think there must be something divine in Man, that he continues to grow until the last hour of death.


Jefferson Poland   


King responded on November 16, 1962:

Dear Mr. Poland,

This is to acknowledge receipt of your letter of recent date. Your story was indeed moving. It is encouraging to know that it is possible to grow and change after a long heritage of prejudice. Certainly your participation contributed to this growth and understanding on the part of your grandfather. This incident is a testimony to the Divine possibilities in mankind in our society.  

Thank you for sharing this information with us.

Sincerely yours,

Martin Luther King, Jr.


The greatness of leaders is determined not merely by what they say or do, but rather by the changes and responses they elicit in others. As we remember King’s vision of universal justice and interracial equality, the response of one Ross Mullin is not a small part of King’s enduring legacy.   


‘We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly . . . Justice too long delayed is justice denied’ (Letter from a Birmingham Jail).

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Black Saints and Santas

santa claus_rockwellFor the next month, white Victorian images of Santa Claus will permeate streets and airwaves around much of the globe. Although the Santa Claus costume for people of color comes complete with a mask in some countries, in other places, non-white images of Santa are alive and well – as in Atlanta, Georgia, for instance, the home of Santa Dee, the Real Black Santa (facebook).


While business is flourishing for Santa Dee, who holds an advanced master certification from the International School of Santa Claus, he has also been inspired by the iconic tradition that has often represented the historic St Nicholas, a Turkish native, as a dark-skinned person (below).

bari-triptych-smbari-nero-smbari-icon-smbari-icon-serbian-smSaint_Nicholas_of_MyraSt Nicolas

St Nicholas is not the only Christian saint with multiple shades of color.  The third-century St Maurice (also Moritz, Morris, Maurizio or Mauritius) of the famed Theban Legion (Egypt), whom tradition claims was martyred in present-day Switzerland and who, as one of the most popular medieval saints, served as the patron saint of the Holy Roman Emperors, has been depicted in religious art both as a black Moor and as a white European.

St MauriceOf particular note is a thirteenth-century statue of St Maurice as a black African that can still be seen in the Magdeburg Cathedral in Germany (left). St Maurice was also the patron saint of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, a military organization founded in fourteenth-century lily-white Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia). A black image of the saint is depicted on the order’s coat of arms (photo below: detail of the House of the Blackheads, Riga, Latvia).


Given the precedent, therefore, of white knights, medieval merchants and holy emperors venerating a black patron saint, the image of children of any color sharing their Christmas wishes on the lap of a black Santa should hardly seem like a novelty. However, for families of color, encountering the dominant image of the white Victorian Santa can be a challenge if not a crisis.

In 2008, Desiree Cooper of public radio’s Weekend America addressed the complicated relationship some black American families have with the traditional Santa Claus (listen to Inside Blackness: Black Santa). Below are a few of the testimonies that appear on the program’s website:

From Vancouver, Washington: I was the first black Santa I ever saw. I’m an ex-cop, and two of my former partners were part of the law enforcement training department at Clackamas Community College in Oregon. They decided to have a Christmas party for the children of incarcerated parents. There were more than 600 mostly underprivileged boys and girls there, and I held each and every one of them on my lap and took their requests for gifts. I was hot, drained and flat-out exhausted when I finished. But I left with a good feeling. Santa’s race doesn’t matter to me because he is a spirit. I think we should have more black Santas. It would reinforce a father-like image for young black kids. It would also enhance the multicultural experience for white youngsters.

From Elk Grove, California: I am a parent to two young boys who, at ages five and eight, have never had a sit-down with a mall Santa of any ethnicity. We are all African- American. Santa’s race doesn’t matter to me directly, but I do understand the subtle message that seeing only a white Santa can convey. My eight-year-old son observed, after I pulled out a black Santa Christmas decoration last year, ‘That’s not Santa. Santa is white’. I asked why he thought that. He shared that basically all he’s ever seen tells him that Santa is white, and no black Santa sitting on our mantle would change his mind. I explained that the mall Santas are helpers to the real Santa, and that they come in all shapes, sizes and colors, including black. Now does this mean that I need to run out and find a black mall Santa? Nope. It does mean that I need to keep doing what I’m already doing: Teaching my children that we need to know as much about who is presenting the image, information, picture, etc., as we do about the item itself to help us understand the message being sent. Folks like to depict what is familiar and comfortable to them, and a white Santa is that for many.

From San Jacinto, California: I played Santa once in Hemet, Calif. I had my Santa hat on. I walked around with a full-blown beard and mustache. Many of the parents came up to me and said, ‘Thank you’. Only one Anglo-European kid requested to sit on my lap. He sat on my lap until it was time for me to read Christmas stories. Santa’s race doesn’t matter to me. When I grew, up all pictures of Santa were of a jolly old Anglo-European man dressed in red and white with a beard and a pair of bifocal glasses. I believe this is a social understanding issue. The US and the world can never see a black man doing anything right. Blacks are identified in the media as if they can do no good. So it is easy to say that there is no black Santa Claus. When, as a nation, we can stop looking at Santas as black or white or whatever and just view them as Santas, the world will be a better place.

Unknown location: Growing up in white suburbia, my authentic Santa was one who looked like the Santa Claus depicted on the Coca Cola ads. My homogeneous existence and worldview changed dramatically my first year of teaching, when I was a minority teacher in an all-black school district. For our Christmas concert, the decoration crew trotted out the black Santa Clauses, and I was taken aback. Needless to say, in 30 years in that district, I only saw black Santa Clauses. So I would say that it’s important for children to see Santa in their own image. 

From Berkeley, California: I was Santa for my kids’ preschool about 12 years ago, in Emeryville, Calif. I’m black, but fairly light-skinned, and it wasn’t a problem at all. My own kids didn’t even recognize me, which was pretty funny. The part about which I am most proud involves my older son, who would have been about 15 at the time. When he told his friends about my experience, they told him Santa couldn’t be black. They said this not in racist anger, but as a matter of fact. My son countered, without any coaching or prompting, that Santa could be any race at all. Santa’s race does not matter. The meaning of Santa Claus is primarily for young children, who often have not even figured out what race really means.


 A quick youtube.com search will reveal a number of short comedic videos on the subject of black Santa, often recycling the same jokes and comments, such as Why Santa can’t be black.


Zwarte PietIn The Netherlands, the issue is not black Santa, but rather his black servant elf known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), first introduced in a 1850 book and now increasingly under criticism as the tradition includes dressing up in the racist caricature of a black person – black-painted faces, Afro wigs and thick red lips. A facebook page has become a major platform for debate on the subject.

GeenStijl,  the county’s most widely read news blog, recently wrote: ‘Zwarte Piet is nothing more than a repulsive parody of a slave, fine-tuned to indoctrinate schoolchildren into the finer points of racism. The sooner we get rid of Zwarte Piet, the sooner we won’t look like idiots to the rest of the world’.

Or, maybe because embodying the racial stereotypes of the cultural other harms and degrades all who are involved, while widening an already formidable gap between the respective cultural groups.


Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from your Santa and mine!

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Beauty and the Nose

In sharing ‘news from home’, Leslie, a young Peruvian woman in my Italian language class, recently reported that her sister was recovering from nose surgery. The operation corrected disfiguration sustained in a car accident several years ago, but Leslie went on to say that nose jobs in South America were very, very common.

That was news to me. Are nose jobs really more common in South America than in other parts of the world, and if so, is there a reason, cultural or other, to explain this?

A quick internet search revealed numerous advertisements and forums promoting cheap, quality nose jobs. Former patients, mostly from North America, praised the medical standards of the South American surgeries. But as Leslie implied, there is far more to the South American nose job than medical tourism.

According to a 2010 article by the BBC, ‘Cheap nose jobs are changing the face of Bolivia’, and indigenous people, in particular, are the target of plastic surgery campaigns. The subject raises the standard issues concerning cultural assimilation: dominant culture ideals of beauty, cultural discrimination based upon these ideals, the threat to non-dominant cultural identity, the ‘solution’ of assimilation, and, of course, economics.

In Bolivia, one of the most impoverished countries in South America, nose jobs are about a fifth of the cost of other countries, and for some low-income patients, surgery is available at a reduced cost – or even free. While the nose jobs – which for Bolivia’s Aymara or Quechua ethnic groups usually mean nose reductions – significantly increase self-esteem for some, for others the ‘democratization’ of plastic surgery comes at a cultural cost. ‘I think cosmetic surgery is an effect of the global and Western idea of beauty that is now ruling the world’, says Pablo Groux, Bolivia’s former minister of culture and an expert on issues of indigenous identity.

According to Richard Herrera, who runs a plastic surgery in Bolivia’s capital of La Paz, the campaigns were started ‘with the aim of reaching out to impoverished people, to help the people with no access to surgeries. So we developed a low-cost surgical package, we have special prices; special discounts to poor people and in every campaign we even operate on some patients for free. People that never thought about surgery, not even having access to a specialist, now they do and they feel they need that change of image’.

Whether these medical campaigns are providing positive solutions to pre-existing ‘problems’ or, instead, are exploiting Bolivia’s ethnic poor may depend upon one’s perspective (see, however, the critique below). In any case, by offering Bolivia’s indigenous ethnic groups affordable nose jobs, personal self-esteem and cultural identity remain at the mercy of the medical market place.


But the current news of the noses actually takes us to Afghanistan, where bigger is more beautiful. In the last year, a number of news stories have covered the emerging cosmetic surgery industry in Afghanistan, now rich in surgeons with years of experience working with the war wounded. New personal and economic freedoms are offering opportunities to change one’s looks. Yet, like Bolivia, there is a distinct ethnic dimension to the practice.

The New York Posts summary of an article published by The Sunday Times (Oct 7, 2012) cuts to the chase, if rather crudely:

‘Bigger is better — especially in Afghanistan. Westerners may go under the knife to reduce their noses to button-shaped perfection, but a growing number of Afghans are clamoring for bigger schnozzes to conform to the Pashtun ideal of beauty. . . . Nose enlargement is the most popular procedure at the Hamkar hospital in western Kabul, where Dr. Daud Nazari can barely keep up with demand. Many of Nazari’s patients belong to the Hazara minority, who feel out of place in Afghan society with their eastern features and flatter noses. Others simply want to refine their looks to bag a good husband. . . . A nose job in Kabul costs about $300, meaning that even for some Afghans on lower incomes, beautification is within reach’.

And earlier this month, Noorjahan Akbar posted a blog on UN Dispatch (November 13, 2012) critiquing the UK’s Channel Four recent documentary, Nip, Tuck Kabul (September 29, 2012) on the grounds that it perpetuates racist standards of beauty.  Her comments are worth citing at length:

‘The story of a young woman, Shaheda, who has saved several months’ salary to get her nose enlarged, is highlighted in the story. Shaheda is glorified as her decision to change her ‘flat nose’ is portrayed as an example of personal freedom. The case of Mrs. Zalmay who is being pressured by her husband to get a nose job is another narrative brought to light. . . .

‘The filmmakers are quick to call these cosmetic surgeries ‘freedom of choice’. Phrases like ‘promise of emancipation’, ‘new-found freedom’ and ‘symbol of free choice’ are used liberally to describe the operations. The women and men undergoing cosmetic surgery are commended for defying rules about how they must look, which the narrator argues have been created by religious leaders. The film ends with the thought that women like Shabnam and Shaheda represent the ‘new Afghanistan’, if there is such a thing.

‘Medical ethics and standards of beauty are tied with cosmetic surgery everywhere in the world. Afghanistan is no exception. Cosmetic surgery in Afghanistan is tied to bigger questions of racial, ethnic and gender hierarchy and standards of beauty. Shaheda and Shabnam are both women from the Hazara ethnicity in Afghanistan. These two women receive facial surgery to ‘fix’ her ‘flat’ nose and lift her ‘baggy’ eyes respectively. Both facial features are more common, though not exclusive, to Hazara people in Afghanistan. These women, in other words, are at the  cosmetic surgery clinic to erase from their face, literally, their ethnic identity.

‘According to Nip, Tuck Kabul, men and women make the choice to disguise their ethnicity, and this should be celebrated as an act of personal freedom and rebellion because for too long religious leaders have determined how people should look. The underlying hypocrisy in the film is that it ignores that women and men are changing their faces because of other rules that exist in the society about their facial features, rules that are racially-based. It is not freedom of choice for racial minorities to change their looks to conform to the majorities’ standards of beauty. If it is wrong for religious leaders to make rules about appearance, it should be equally unacceptable for racial hierarchies to set standards of beauty.

‘The documentary, though it mentions that many are undergoing surgery to conceal their ethnicity, ignores the racial, ethnic and gender hierarchies of the business and continues to call these modifications ‘acts of freedom’. It overlooks that many of the customers are Hazara women who change their looks because of the inferiority assigned to their physical features by a culture that views big eyes and tall noses as superior and values women based only on their appearance.

‘By not questioning the motive of these surgeries, the documentary, like those receiving surgeries, assumes that in fact big noses are ‘better’, or ‘in-fashion’, as the anchor phrases it, and that ‘Hazara’s flat noses’ must be ‘fixed’ and ‘concealed’ for being somehow ‘inferior or ugly’. Nip, Tuck Kabul perpetuates the racist standards of beauty that exist in the Afghan culture by calling these surgeries liberation and freedom of choice’.


From Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner:

‘They called him ‘flat-nosed’  because of Ali and Hassan’s characteristic Hazara Mongoloid features. For years, that was all I knew about the Hazaras, that they were Mogul descendants, and that they looked a little like Chinese people. School text books barely mentioned them and referred to their ancestry only in passing. Then one day, I was in Baba’s study, looking through his stuff, when I found one of my mother’s old history books. It was written by an Iranian named Khorami. I blew the dust off it, sneaked it into bed with me that night, and was stunned to find an entire chapter on Hazara history. An entire chapter dedicated to Hassan’s people! In it, I read that my people, the Pashtuns, had persecuted and oppressed the Hazaras. It said the Hazaras had tried to rise against the Pashtuns in the nineteenth century, but the Pashtuns had ‘quelled them with unspeakable violence’. The book said that my people had killed the Hazaras, driven them from their lands, burned their homes, and sold their women. The book said part of the reason Pashtuns had oppressed the Hazaras was that Pashtuns were Sunni Muslims, while Hazaras were Shi’a. The book said a lot of things I didn’t know, things my teachers hadn’t mentioned. Things Baba hadn’t mentioned either. It also said some things I did know, like that people called Hazaras mice-eating, flat-nosed, load-carrying donkeys. I had heard some of the kids in the neighborhood yell those names to Hassan’.


Also see Born Pakistani, He Died a Hazara in The International News (May 31, 2012).

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Sculpture 9841: Johann Trollmann and the Sinti Holocaust

While German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened a permanent memorial to the half-million Roma and Sinti victims of the Nazi Holocaust today in Berlin’s Tiergarten Park, a temporary monument commemorating one single victim of the tragedy, Johann ‘Rukeli’ Trollmann (d. 1944), is also touring Germany.

‘A place for people to meet and communicate’. That’s how artist, Alekos Hofstetter, describes 9841, a sculpture memorializing Trollman, a Sinti-German boxer, which can be seen in Dresden until 24 December 2012. Trollman, who did his talking in the boxing ring, lost his life in the Nazi concentration camp of Wittenberge, where he was known as prisoner 9841.

Public art and physical commemorations have the power to sanctify the historical past while bringing people together in needful dialogue.  They serve as meeting places for communication, encounters for intercultural discourse, spaces for historical reflection, and venues for reconciliation. In offering a place for people to meet and communicate, the past is shared and the future is shaped.

And, a really clever monument lets you physically engage the context, or, in this case, literally enter the ring

Sculpture 9841, by the artist group Bewegnung Nurr, is an installation consisting of a steel boxing ring with a sloping concrete surface. A dozen concrete boxing gloves cling to the ropes. The memorial translates the social and political threat which dominated Trollmann’s life into a life-sized three dimensional object. According to the artist statement, ‘the sloping surface of the boxing ring can no longer guarantee any foothold, just as the brutal defamation of “non-Aryan” persons in the Third Reich gradually pulled Trollmann into the abyss of loss of rights and persecution.  He lost not only his legitimate claim to the sports title of German Champion in Cruiserweight, but also – along with many other “non-Aryan” athletes – his life’.

Born on 27 December 1907 near Hannover, Trollmann rose to prominence in German boxing circles in the 1920s. Known for his dancing style, Trollmann was a forerunner of modern boxing in the style latter adopted by Muhammad Ali. Denied a place on the 1928 German Olympic team due to his race, the peak of Trollmann’s career took place on 9 June 1933 when he fought Adolf Witt for the German light-heavyweight title. Although he clearly beat Witt on points, Nazi officials, who could not afford a victorious non-Aryan to challenge their propagandistic theories of Aryan supremacy,  intervened resulting in the fight being judged a ‘no result’. Although the public outcry led the Nazis to temporarily acknowledge Trollmann as the victor, he was stripped of the result a week later.

A new fight, this time with Gustav Elder, was scheduled for 21 July, but Trollman was warned that if he ‘danced like a gypsy’, he would be stripped of his title. Trollmann, who came to the fight with his hair dyed blond and his skin powdered white, stood in the ring for five rounds before collapsing. He career as a professional boxer was over.

Beginning in 1939, Trollman was conscripted in the German Armed Forces, serving in Poland, Belgium and France, before being discharged in 1942 for ‘racial reasons’. In June of the same year, he was arrested in Hannover and deported to Neuengamme, where he was forced to train against SS men every evening. His fellow prisoners, upon faking his death, arranged for him to be transferred to Wittenberge. There, his identity was once again recognized, and he was forced to fight Emil Cornelius, a camp overseer. Trollmann defeated Cornelius, and in revenge, Cornelius murdered Trollman soon afterwards.

In 1982, Germany officially recognized the genocide of the Roma and Sinti.

In 2004, Johann ‘Rukeli’ Trollman was re-awarded the title of German Light-Heavyweight Champion by the Association of German Boxers.


At today’s unveiling of Berlin’s memorial to the Roma and Sinti Holocaust, Chancellor Merkel paid tribute to the victims. ‘Every single fate in this genocide is a suffering beyond understanding. Every single fate fills me with sorrow and shame,’ she said.

The memorial, which is a water basin containing a stone on which a fresh flower will be placed each day, was designed by Israeli artist Dani Karavan, who desired the monument to be a symbol of life, sadness and memory, and for the space to be a place for meditation. ‘I wanted to reduce it to a minimum, not to make a big cry, but a silent whisper of pain.’


Still today, the Romani people are discriminated against in many European countries. According to Berlin’s Der Tagesspiegel, while the memorial ‘finally recognises the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Sinti and Roma… it certainly does not show future generations of Sinti and Roma a way out of the dilemma between exclusion, separation and assimilation’.

Maybe that’s too much to ask of a water basin and a concrete boxing ring, which, after all, provide little more than places to meet and communicate. Or, maybe it’s just a reminder that sharing the past is only as valuable as the future it helps to shape.

Posted in Adolf Witt, Angela Merkel, Berlin, Boxer, Boxing, Germany, Gypsy, Holocaust, Johann Trollmann, Nazi, Roma, Romani, Sinti, Uncategorized | 2 Comments