Recent(-ish) reads (02.20.24)

Recent(-ish) reads (02.20.24) February 20, 2024

• “Of Missionaries, Native Americans, Lunatics, And Martians.”

Philip Jenkins on what we can (and should) learn from the missiology of Washington Irving and H.G. Wells.

• Colin Dickey on “The Unsettling Legend of Maryland’s Native Cryptid, the Snallygaster.”

You’ve gotta love that name, “Snallygaster.” It’s like something out of Lewis Carroll. This is a quaint, quirky tale of a local legend that began as a bit of vague folklore then got hyped to the next level by Barnumesque early 20th-century newspapers who seized on it to boost sales.

That’s all charming Americana but, alas, like all Americana, this story is also shaped and warped by the same thing that shapes and warps everything else about this country. So the Snallygaster legend was also enlisted to enforce white supremacy:

Reports, for example, that the “great bird preys upon Negro children out after dark,” are in keeping with the kind of weaponized superstition tactics that were common in the South, before and after the Civil War. Folklorist Gladys-Marie Fry’s 1975 Night Riders in Black Folk History documents the numerous ways in which whites would attempt to use urban legend, folklore, and the supernatural as means of control. “The primary aim of such pressure was to discourage the unauthorized movement of Blacks,” she writes, “especially at night, by making them afraid of encountering supernatural beings…. From the post–Civil War period to World War I, the method helped to stem the tide of Black movement from rural farming communities in the South to the urban industrial centers of the North.” As one of her sources, Evelyn McKinney, explained in 1964, “These stories were about things that happened at night. And these were the things that kept you from going out.… I mean these things that kept you in fear not of the master himself, but of the supernatural. You knew that you may be able to avoid the master because perhaps he was sleeping. But you couldn’t avoid the supernatural.”

There were ghosts that haunted crossroads, forests, and cemeteries (all of which, particularly before Emancipation, would have been vital thoroughfares for those escaping slavery). There were “Night Doctors,” men who lurked in Northern cities and kidnapped and murdered Black people for use in anatomical dissection and medical experimentation. It was not uncommon, particularly during the first era of Ku Klux Klan activity during Reconstruction, for a group of white men to show up on the porch of a Black sharecropper after midnight, claiming to be the ghosts of Confederate soldiers. (Suddenly the “Chickamauga” Snallygaster story becomes clear.) It was a violent and malicious kind of humbug: an “honest” hoax, so to speak, that dared its victims to disbelieve.

• And here’s his piece on “The Long, Surprising Legacy of the Hopkinsville Goblins.”

• “What was that thing you told me yesterday that I said?” Kliph Nesteroff interviews the late comedian Shecky Greene. It’s partly a history lesson in mid-20th-century comedy and partly a dishy review of half-remembered old-school Vegas gossip. (Part 2 of the interview is here.)

• “The ‘Crispy R’ and Why R Is the Weirdest Letter

The sounds indicated by many letters are pretty much the same across most languages. Take a nasal, such as M, which is basically the same in every language that has it. R is extremely not.

This is a fun discussion of a fascinating subject. I had the misfortune of learning to talk before I’d developed the capacity to pronounce the internal R in my name and thus wound up in speech therapy in kindergarten.

I also still can’t roll my Rs when attempting to speak Spanish or French. If I’m understanding this correctly, that’s because I make a “bunched” rather than a “retroflex” R. My sister, a former French teacher, tried to correct this by having me repeat the Lone Ranger theme/William Tell Overture over and over, faster and faster. That didn’t help me learn to roll my Rs, but my wife tells me to keep practicing.

• “We are experiencing this situation together.” On phatic expressions between humans (and between humans and cats).

• “The Surprisingly Durable American Tradition of Forging Viking Artifacts,” by Martyn Whittock at Slate.

If one is searching for evidence of Vikings, then Oklahoma is not a very likely place to start looking. Located huge distances from the sea, this state seems short of Viking potential. At least Minnesota is in some proximity to the Great Lakes. But this has not stopped Oklahoma from featuring in the search for American Vikings. These examples are so unconvincing that we shall not spend a great deal of time in examining them.

The thing about this piece, though, is that the “unconvincing” examples are far more entertaining.

• “US Beauty Products Are Still Full of Dodgy Ingredients.”

FDA scientists have sought to address that disparity, moving last month to ban the use of hair straightening products that contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. It was a step that Nudelman said was “a double-edged sword.”

“On the one hand, ‘hooray’—we’re happy that the FDA has finally woken up to this problem that consumers have been aware of and have been negatively impacted by for so many years,” Nudelman said. “But by banning formaldehyde from hair-straightening products, they’re just really only dealing with the tip of the iceberg of the problem.”

Formaldehyde was a perfectly legal ingredient for hair-care products up until months ago. And a whole lot of other hair-care, skin-care, and cosmetic products sold in America still legally contain all kinds of nasty stuff that’s banned in other countries: “The nations of the European Union have outlawed the use of more than 2,400 chemicals in cosmetics; federal officials in the US have banned only 11 substances from cosmetics.”

American consumers tend to be vaguely confident that the things we buy have been regulated to ensure they’re safe to use. Even alleged believers in “small-government conservatism” or “libertarians” here imagine that “They wouldn’t be allowed to sell this if it wasn’t safe.” But allowed by whom? Whole categories of products — herbal supplements are another one — are still about as regulated as the snake-oil that Old West con artists sold from the back of covered wagons.

“Icaria” flew too close to the sun. It turns out that 19th-century writers who were skilled at crafting novels about utopian cities were not therefore also skilled at or qualified to build such cities in real life or to rule over them as micromanaging autocrats.

• Dr. Eleanor Janega on why “Doctor does actually mean someone with a PhD, sorry.”

Philosophers and theologians have a longer, older claim to the title “doctor” than physicians. A Ph.D. is a “real doctor.” That’s where the word came from and what it meant for a very, very long time.

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