Saturday, January 22, 2011

I Found it on the Internet

            That statement often signals careless research and even gullibility. A case in point is the textbook “Our Virginia, Past and Present” recently pulled from many school systems because of historical errors that included the statement that thousands of African American soldiers fought for the South during the Civil War. According to the Washington Post of December 29, “The claim is one often made by Confederate heritage groups but rejected by most mainstream historians. The book's author, Joy Masoff, said at the time that she found references to it during research on the Internet.”

Well, of course, we exclaim. Who does serious research on the Internet?

Well, me, for one.
That’s because the Internet, as I see it, is one giant library in the cloud. In the days when only brick-and-mortar libraries existed, a dubious report of information found in a book would be met with the question, “Do you believe everything you read?”

Hopefully you didn’t. Hopefully you brought some background information to your reading, as well as a bit of judgment and skepticism. That’s even more important on the Internet, where anyone can post whatever he or she pleases -- unlike library books which are chosen by professional librarians.

Research has been on my mind lately not just because of the error-ridden textbooks, but because the rights to my first two books, both historical novels, recently reverted to me, and I decided to give them a going over before having them formatted for the Kindle and other eBook platforms. Last winter, while snowbound for several weeks, I curled up with a warm computer. Besides some minor copy-editing, I spent most of that time online, double-checking my research.

The novels, As Far as Blood Goes (the story of a fugitive slave who becomes a doctor) and A Different Sin (a combined Civil War novel and gay men=s romance), were published in 1988 and 1993 respectively. I’m neither a historian nor Civil War buff, so I had to do a lot of research – nearly all of which took place in the Alexandria, Virginia public libraries.

I was fortunate that the Alexandria Gazette, one of the country’s oldest newspapers, was available on microfilm in the library’s Special Collections, and I spent hours squinting over microfilmed copies from the early 1800’s. (Let me tell you, an ice cream headache has nothing on a microfilm headache.) But hours were also spent wandering aimlessly through library stacks looking for relevant books on black and Civil War history.

Except for newspapers from the times, and a few reprinted memoirs, I relied on history books, not on original documents from those times. But hey, I was writing fiction, not trying to add to the body of historical knowledge. For As Far as Blood Goes I needed first to find out whether it was possible for a black man to have become a doctor in ante-Bellum America -- and yes, there were indeed a handful of African-American physicians at the time -- and then learn enough to know how the events of that time would shape and affect my characters. 

But research in a brick-and-mortar library has its limitations as well. For example, Michael, the protagonist of As Far as Blood Goes, is whipped as punishment for teaching his friends – also slaves – to read. I knew that teaching slaves to read was against the law, but I wasn’t sure what the penalty was. The card catalog doesn’t zero in on such details. I don’t remember if I consulted the reference librarian – who might have located the legal codes from 1831. Instead, I made the assumption that since 39 lashes was a typical punishment for infractions by slaves in much of the South, it would be what Michael would be subjected to.

When I checked my research last winter, I didn’t go to the library. Instead I brought up Google search. Within five minutes, I had found more than one history that explored this topic, including The American Slave Code in Theory and Practice: Its Distinctive Features Shown by Its Statutes, Judicial Decisions, and Illustrative Facts, by William Goodell, which devotes a chapter to the prohibition of education.  

This history quoted the relevant Virginia law, word for word. And I discovered that while I was correct that it was illegal to teach slaves reading or writing, and to assemble for such purpose – as Michael and his friends did – I was incorrect as to the exact penalty, which called on an officer of the law “to inflict corporal punishment on the offender or offenders, at the discretion of any justice of the peace, not exceeding twenty lashes.” Still a terrible punishment, but not quite as severe.

I’m working on a new historical novel now – this one taking place on New York’s Lower East Side among Jewish immigrant families like my those of my grandparents. But family stories go only so far in fleshing out the era. So if you ask me where I found this fact about laws concerning tenement buildings or that one about women’s fashions, or even when bobby pins were invented, I’ll tell you straight out:

I found it on the Internet.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Words Have Consequences

We think in words. Words and symbols.

We feel in words and symbols.

We perceive the world in words and symbols.

Often we don’t realize how our view of ourselves, of other people, of what is normal and what is not, of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable are all shaped by the words we hear, the symbols we see.

The feminists in the 1960’s understood that. That’s why they insisted on nonsexist language: mailman to mail carrier, chairman to chairperson.

Abe Pollin understood that in 1997 when he changed the name of his Washington, DC basketball team from Bullets to Wizards. The word bullets sent a message, however subtle: Guns are OK. Bullets are OK. Shooting people is OK.

Sadly, some politicians still don’t understand.

Putting a person in your “crosshairs” sends a message. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords  was one of the legislators featured in a map put up by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin targeting members of Congress who had voted for the health care bill. The opponent Congresswoman Giffords defeated held a campaign event described with the words, "Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."

Today Sarah Palin has posted on Facebook that she is praying “for the victims and their families.” She doesn’t see the victims as her victims. I don’t imagine Jesse Kelly feels responsibility for them either.

But words and symbols shape our thoughts and feelings, our view of what is right and what is wrong. Words and symbols have consequences. I’m sure Sarah Palin and Jesse Kelly meant to inspire their supporters to campaign hard, to get out the vote. I’m sure they never meant to incite them to kill.

I’m sure they felt that no rational person would take them literally.

But our words go out to the rational and irrational alike.  Once printed in a newspaper, once posted on the Internet, we have no way of knowing who they will reach, who will take them as justification for murder.

Please: No more words that incite to violence. No more symbols that incite to violence.

No more guns. No more targets. Never again.