Our ‘tranquilizing drug of gradualism’

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. In its own way, it commemorates African American History Month. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Dr. King is likely the American thinker who comes to my mind more than any other. Not the populist who was culturally moderated over time into a convenient character for classroom posters. But the difficult and complicated and tortured man, the leader who was flawed and inspiring and masterful in so many ways.

When a MLK quote rattles in my head, it isn’t his iconic, if tired, classic: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Pulled from its context, that’s always seemed to me to be too universal to stir. Instead, it comforts, and I’ve found always found MLK misunderstood when he’s seen as a comforting.

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Notes on seeing Europe from a train

On the train destined for Stockholm, Sweden
On the train destined for Stockholm, Sweden on Nov. 1, 2008.

By Christopher Wink | Oct 23, 2008 | WeDontSpeaktheLanguage.com

You take trains from big cities to other big cities. Lands, untold by tour books and unseen by sloppy tourists like yourself, unfold beneath your high carriage of jet setting: two months, 10 cities 3,000 miles wide and two or three days deep.

You are riding great dividers of place and time, laughing at great empires of history. Slicing corridors of culture. Other trains pass with silent screams at 70 miles per hour. You mull issues of personal importance and navigate narrow bathrooms.

There’s the old story of the boy who took a train and came back a man. No great story of accomplishment or adventure, but stalking late-night cars and toeing empty rail yards. Sleeping with a bag in his lap until he wanted someone to know him again. Until he learned who is chasing whom.

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The supernatural: graves and ghosts at Temple University

By Christopher Wink | Oct. 30, 2007 | The Temple News

Temple University has been built on the backs of the dead. It’s late October, and we think about the old, the hidden and the dead. Temple has its ghosts, indeed.

TEMPLE BY GRAVES

In the 1880s, Russell Conwell was laying the groundwork for what would be Temple University. He was tutoring young men by low light in the back of Grace Baptist Church, in a room called “the Temple.”

Across North Broad Street was a rambling grave site called Monument Cemetery, already half a century old and filling quickly.

By 1929, Monument had been filled to capacity with 28,000 burial services. Its 11-acre compound had been encircled by a dense urban landscape of rowhomes filled with Philadelphians of German and Irish descent. It sat like that for nearly thirty years, assuring Temple remained a decidedly east-of-Broad institution.

CONWELL WALKS

Conwell was one of the last notable Philadelphians to be buried in Monument Cemetery. He died in 1925, 15 years after his wife. After his wife’s passing, Conwell turned cold and perplexing. He stayed on in his fine home at 2020 N. Broad St., along with at least one maid, but Sarah was on his mind.

Not long before his death, Conwell was searching for his Civil War discharge papers but neither he nor his staff could find them. Legend has it that his wife came to him in sleep and told him where to find them. The next morning, the dream proved prescient, prompting Conwell to celebrate his wife’s reemergence to a maid.

Of course, the maid labeled it lunacy. To counter, Conwell had his maid hide a pen, without telling him where. That night Sarah came to her husband and told him where to find the pen. The next morning, Conwell came to his maid, pen in hand. Sarah, it has been said, was insulted by her husband’s desire to prove her. She never visited Conwell again.

GROWTH UNCOVERS

Like most city neighborhoods, North Philadelphia had a population jump after World War II, before a precipitous decline in the 1950s. Monument Cemetery became an obstacle. For growth. For homes. For Temple.

In September 1955, a court order was passed, ordering the city to begin transporting the remains from Monument to Rockledge’s Lawnview Cemetery in Montgomery County. Russell and Sarah, together once again, were entombed at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, an act paid for by Temple.

By 1956, Temple bought the cemetery site. The rock walls that separate the Broad Street sidewalk and the parking lot between Montgomery and the Student Pavilion are the last visible reminder of 28,000 dead in Temple’s neighborhood.

Three years later, in June 1959, Temple welcomed two back home. Russell and Sarah were buried in the sidewalk alcove that rests along North Broad Street between Conwell and Wachman Halls. There were photos and coverage from all the major media of the day.

It took more than a decade, though, for the Conwells to have a final resting place, then with much less attention. Just a single clipping from a yellowed copy of The Temple News is all that presented itself to show the last trip Russell and Sarah took. That a short walk to what was then a newly constructed Founder’s Garden. They were settled there late in the summer of 1968. Questions remain whether they have explored other homes for the future.

Text as it appeared in The Temple News on Oct. 30, 2007. See it here.

A Port Richmond Puerto Rican

By Christopher Wink | Feb. 16, 2008

Mike came to me.

The platform at City Hall station doesn’t afford much room to maneuver.

Before I knew his name, I knew he was Puerto Rican and friendly, with a bag of CDs and dirt under fingernails that needed attention by anyone’s standards.

After we formally introduced ourselves, he let me on in a secret.

“I just tell people I’m Puerto Rican, man,” Mike told me in the privacy of a crowded car on the Broad Street Line. “So, I don’t get jumped. I’m as white as you.”

And that laugh. The giggle of the deranged.

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A West African Summer in 499 Words

By Christopher Wink | August 29, 2005 | Travel Reflection

Africa was not real to me.  It was imaginary; I saw a place where elephants roam and people starve.  I saw children with flies around their faces in villages and huts and tribes.  I saw in stereotypes and misunderstandings and prejudices and lies.  That was all before I arrived at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana.

I gave two months of my teenage life to West Africa, and I was given in return a lifetime of awareness and understanding.  I studied in a classroom at the University of Ghana, but Ayi Kwei Armah and Abu Abarry didn’t teach me nearly as much as the cab rides and post offices and market women did.  Reading about West African culture in my overpriced course packet never satisfied my hunger as well as freshly pounded banku and groundnut soup did.  I played basketball with Octung and Salam to hear them speak in proverbs.  I laughed with Tonko and met too many Kwesis to remember.

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Tijuana Reflections from January 2005

Our group of Temple volunteers and some of community leaders with whom we worked
Our group of Temple volunteers and some of community leaders with whom we worked

By Christopher Wink | January 28, 2005

On a recent trip to poverty ravaged Tijuana, I could not help but see the irony, clichéd as it may be, of a border wall – that divides with great tumult the U.S. and Mexico – extending into the serenity of the Pacific Ocean. It is unreal to brace oneself against the rusted wall and watch it snake its way into the greens and blues of the water below as it divides San Diego and Tijuana. Here, lines drawn on maps are far from imaginary and they carry emotional meaning that no fence should.

But for me, when I travel, the first things I notice are the similarities between where I am and where I live. Mysterious or not, the smiles of children are the same in Mexico: where south not only describes its geographic relationship to the U.S. but also its location below the poverty line. Of course American business spills over the fortified walls, so the border region oozes the products of Sam Walton and Ronald McDonald with a Mexican touch.

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A Generation of Change (New York Times Magazine: 8/3/07)

nytm-collegecontest

By Christopher Wink | Aug 3, 2007 | New York Times Magazine submission

There has been a great loss in the level of activism among college students since the turbulent 1960s. Complacency reigns over the people. Today’s twenty-something, anarchist-punk, bicycle-messenger population is dwindling. Those that have survived are crestfallen.

The man with the thin gray goatee – and a framed photograph of himself looking hairier and suspiciously uninhibited in 1972 – laments, if only half seriously, that the ire of this young generation cannot seem to be adequately risen.

It was different when he was young, he’ll tell you.

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Philadelphia Inquirer Internship Reflection (5/23/06)

By Christopher Wink | May 23, 2006

It was January 16, 2006 that I was offered and I accepted an internship with the Philadelphia Inquirer. It was that very Monday that I accepted a position I hadn’t expected to get, a position with the city desk of a large, historical, urban daily.

I think about the semester I spent walking the streets of Philadelphia with an Inquirer ID around my neck and a steno pad stuck in my back pocket, those felt-tip black pens, Hermes, and DocCenter. I made mistakes, mistakes as inexplicable as your palms sweating when you go to shake some silly celebrity’s hand. I went to court without a pen, to a press conference without a pad, and an interview without both. I called detectives without remembering why and had quotes without remembering from whom.

I covered the courts on Fridays. Allow me to demystify that. Most weeks that meant I sat in the Criminal Justice Center on Filbert Street waiting for jury deliberations to end or chasing down grieving widows to get a quotation on how the verdict made her feel.

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Stirring the Melting Pot

By Christopher Wink | Nov 13, 2006 | The ISRST Review [PDF]

The American population gurgled over 300 million some time in October of 2006, and it never paused. A solid 67 percent of that population considers itself non-Hispanic white in racial makeup, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, meaning nearly 100 million Americans are responsible for the blacks and browns and reds and golds in our ethnic color wheel.

This is, as we say in American flag-adorned speeches and mushy patriotic reports, what makes the United States a melting pot, as it was put by an English playwright nearly a century ago. Though most sociologists have long since discarded the phrase, its meaning is strong to all proud Americans. Yet, anyone who has ever ridden a bus passed the abandoned row houses in North Philadelphia or been lost in the faceless lines of tract housing in Union, Kentucky must know the pot needs to be stirred.

There is no equality in division, only disparity takes root. So, give us answers, we clamor. Leaders and legislators, you must tell us what the solutions for our continued racial misgivings are. The answers haven’t come. How could they? We haven’t yet established what the problem is.

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