A good rule to live by is always stay skeptical of world days as substitutes or surrogates for action year-round, but not so skeptical that you underestimate a healthy reminder to effect change. World Emoji Day is July 17, but who’s arguing emojis don’t deserve year-round campaigns? World Tuna Day, May 2, crucial around the clock. And don’t get reporter Rebecca Leber started on Earth Day as little more than a “trite” blip on corporate calendars for PR stunts, she says in her scathing “I’m an Environmental Reporter and I Hate Earth Day.”
But some days are singularly beneficial, like World Health Day, sponsored yesterday by the World Health Organization. As the repercussions of the pandemic reverberate, health deserves a day. Every day. Take time if you can. Observe your health with three tips:
1. Consult a doctor before ingesting Recharge advice, but barring any reason not to, get yourself vitamin D if you’re sunlessly indoors. Just don’t buy the myth that it prevents or mitigates COVID-19, put to rest by Harvard Health’s senior faculty editor Dr. Robert Shmerling, who reported Monday that a “randomized controlled study of people with moderate to severe COVID-19 who received a high dose of vitamin D showed no benefit” in recovery or risk reduction. But nutritional value persists.
2. Billie Holiday would have turned 106 yesterday. Here’s a recording that gets nowhere near the shares or airtime it deserves, from a rehearsal in 1956: “My Yiddishe Momme.” The baby in the background is her godchild Bevan Dufty, future member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and director of Bay Area Rapid Transit. Rejuvenation is health too. This brings it.
3. A clear mind doesn’t hurt, so let me settle a small debate: Your well-being is your wellbeing, no hyphen. Never mind the Los Angeles Times opinion writer who insisted weeks ago that everyone hyphenate well-being as “the correct form”: “Teenagers used to be teen-agers. Cellphones used to be cell phones. Email used to be e-mail. So it’s understandable that writers would start compressing well-being into wellbeing. In fact, I see it a lot. But the closed form isn’t in major dictionaries yet and, until it is, ‘well-being’ remains the correct form.’”
Sorry to break it to you, but I hereby announce, effective today, by the authority vested in me as Mother Jones’ copy wrangler, that “wellbeing” is closed up in our style guide, just for you. Begone, hyphen. Wellbeing is an intact concept and should be an intact word. But if hyphenating serves your individual, organizational, or reader health, go with it.
Bonus tip: Stop chewing gum. It’s mostly unhealthy, unless you don’t mind your genetic code dug up 5,700 years from now like this wad of gum from the Stone Age, whose chewer, scientists say, was a young Danish woman.
The New York Times has a touching obituary of the New York poet Robert Hershon, who died this week at 84. Across a 50-odd-year career, Hershon and his collaborators at the “self-editing” Hanging Loose Press—it started life as a binder of looseleaf poems you were free to keep or discard as you liked—published work by the writers Denise Levertov, Maggie Nelson, Cathy Park Hong, and Ha Jin, among countless others.
In a 2002 profile, a Brooklyn Rail interviewer recalled meeting Hershon and leaving with a pile of literature:
“One of the reasons the press has lasted so long is that we get a kick out of it,” Hershon says, choosing an armful of books to give me before I leave. “And one of the pleasures of a press is to be able to give books away.”…Then, glancing through the pile, he adds a book of his own. “There’s my old head,” he quips of a younger-looking jacket photograph, “I don’t know how I lost it.”
Hanging Loose’s first office, before it was a true press, was the legendary McSorley’s bar on Manhattan’s East Seventh Street; Hershon and his collaborators soon landed in Brooklyn digs, before small Brooklyn presses were a thing, and eventually bounced back to the island—powered throughout by Hershon’s tireless enthusiasm, love of new writers, and subversive wit. The Times obit reprints his “F Stop,” a subway poem from 1985:
Don’t push. There is another F train right behind us.
There’s another F that’s faster and finer than this F is. It serves French fries and frog legs. All the seats face front and are covered with monkey fur. A flutist plays melodies in F. It’s an infinitely superior F train. It’s right behind us. Why don’t you wait?
Ah, because we know the
faces of those for whom
the trains have never come.
And we fear that what finally
roars from that sour tunnel
is fury itself. There is another F train right behind us.
Let some other fool wait.
And they start the push
Poetry is more interesting than reporters talking about it, so go read the obituary and then read his work.
An ambitious new series, Solutions Cinema, is off to a strong start. The monthlong festival searches for action and accountability around entrenched injustices through a slate of interactive films. Instead of one-directional storytelling, the 12 films are coupled with audience dialogue, including panels with filmmakers, featured characters, and students. Free screenings range widely, from a portrait of an Oakland high school’s reckoning with COVID-19 by director Peter Nicks, interviewed before by Mother Jones’ Brandon Patterson, to a documentary about grassroots journalism by Dalit women in India defying threats of violence and intimidation, by directors Rintus Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh.
The two, Homeroom and Writing With Fire, top my list. There’s another, about migrant laborers in Italy and Côte d’Ivoire (The Invisibles), and a timely documentary about South Africa’s escalating water scarcity (The Water Queen), along with a look at indigenous people in Mexico defending their community (Cherán: The Burning Hope). What’s uniquely promising here—the festival runs throughout April, launched by Doha Debates and Maine’s Point North Institute—is more than the scope and scale. It’s the basic premise, a kind of wager that is vanishingly incentivized in much of today’s media: a bid for dialogue instead of monologue. An effort to learn and unlearn. And an affirmation that audiences are drivers, not passengers, of cinema. The goal of engaging across divides without false equivalencies or neutrality, and finding that sweet spot, needs amplifying.
As my colleague Maddie Oatman wrote in her interview with the musician Jake Blount back in December, “genres” are neatly parceled networks of marketability, a bit of code to construct artistic expression as a workable commodity. The banjo player and fiddler feels “compelled,” he says, to unpack “boundaries between genres that were created specifically to divide music by who was playing it and who was listening—because that’s where genre comes from.” He wants instead to “highlight the interconnectedness of very different traditions” of Gullah music, blues, jazz, bluegrass, and spirituals.
His interview has stayed with me. It jumped to mind as I scrolled and stumbled through Every Noise at Once, a living archive of all genres in the world. The website maps “an algorithmically generated…scatter-plot of the musical genre space based on data tracked and analyzed for 5,304 genre-shaped distinctions…as of 2021-03-30…Click anything to hear an example of what it sounds like. Be calmly aware that this may periodically expand, contract, or combust.”
Each Friday, we bring you an article from our archives to propel you into the weekend.
Today it was announced that Larry McMurtry, one of the great novelists of his time, died. He was 84. A writer of the American West, McMurtry is often remembered for his classic Lonesome Dove. It is, according to our reporter Tim Murphy, worth the read (however long). As Tim joked in recommending it today: “[melville dies] ‘read Moby Dick if you haven’t.'” But McMurtry wasn’t just a writer of cowboys and horses. His incisive novels became classic films, like The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment. I haven’t dug in, but I’ve also heard a few mentions of McMurtry’s work for the New York Review of Books. (My own experience with McMurtry is mainly through his son, James McMurtry, who has made some of my favorite albums of the last 20 years.)
Michael Mechanic, a senior editor here—with a book out soon on the inner lives of the rich (order!)—interviewed McMurtry in 2014. Give it a read. I particularly liked this quick back and forth in which McMurtry swats down the annoying interpretations of Lonesome Dove he has seen:
You felt that Lonesome Dove was misinterpreted, that you’d intended it as an anti-Western. In what sense?
Would you like your menfolk to be that way? The Western myth is a heroic myth, and yet settling the West was not heroic. It ended with Custer; it was the end of the settlement narrative, which had been going on since 1620.
No hugging sprees just yet, but yes, senior centers and assisted-living homes are easing restrictions following loosened federal guidelines for vaccinated adults. Ninety-four-year-old Gloria Winston of Rhode Island rejoiced in an interview with the Associated Press: “This is the beginning of the very best to come, hopefully, for all of us” who are fortunate enough to emerge safely from isolation. “We need the nourishment of each other.”
“The hug I got was just unimaginable, how much it made me feel,” a vaccinated Ohio resident said. Policies vary by state and facility, but reviews are underway. Almost 1.5 million long-term-care residents are fully vaccinated, along with 1 million staffers, according to the CDC, underscoring the mounting toll of isolation and the healing effect of vaccine-enabled hugs.
See you soon. Let’s meet for that Recharge picnic, all quarter-million subscribers to this newsletter. I’ll make spanakopita. You bring that cucumber-mint thing you keep emailing about. Or cantaloupe. We’re not picky. Hmm, 217,466 subscribers. Maybe we should call it off. We’d need a ton of phyllo dough. Some of you can’t even have feta. Spanakopita without feta is like a newsletter without music, so here, in the name of reportorial vigor, is your daily lift: The Rascals’ “It’s a Beautiful Morning.” Let us know how your day’s going at email@example.com.
A few weeks ago, Recharge boosted you with the good news that you can hear the first sounds ever recorded on the surface of Mars. Well, now there’s more. NASA released the sounds of the Mars rover’s wheels as they clank across the planet’s surface. “The sounds were picked up by one of the two onboard microphones. This audio is taken from a 16-minute sequence recorded during a 27m-drive on 7 March,” says the BBC.
My take on space noises? They’re cool. And, dare I say it, weird. The second sounds from Mars are like you’re inside a metal can being thrown down a stairwell (at least to me).
As last time, this is an opportunity to pontificate, long and hard, on the connection between our planetary existence and sound. My colleague Daniel King scratched together a Mars playlist (Mars Volta, Bruno Mars, Mars Breslow, John Coltrane’s “Mars”). But I’m going to give myself more leeway here. A few “space” albums or songs I’d listen to post-rover noises: “Spaced Out on Your Love,” by Errol Stubbs; the album Guitar in the Space Age! by Bill Frisell; and (sorry, a weird one) the art “recording project” writ album Captured Space, released just last year. Finish off with “Spaced Cowboy” by Sly & the Family Stone, one of the greatest songs of all time, and you’re good to go.
Do you have a “space” playlist? Are you going to get mad at me about the “Spaced Cowboy” hot take or just realize I’m right? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I say to my students all the time, ‘If you want to learn how to write, if you want to learn history, listen to jazz,'” Nikki Giovanni said Tuesday in a livestream with bassist Christian McBride and poet Evie Shockley, presented by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. They converged on a trio of themes—the sculpting of sound, the pairing of words, and the making of movements for change.
Giovanni’s poetry lands in a lineage of writers and educators including Thulani Davis, featured here before, whose new book, Nothing But the Music, is a must-read of musical impressions, improvisation, and insight. The New York Times on Friday ran a spectacular feature on Davis—the first woman to win a Grammy for best album liner notes—by Daphne A. Brooks. Which leads me to a question and, I think, one of its answers: When do notes line the music, and when does music accompany the vivid language of the notes? When they illuminate each other, bringing you closer to each, you’ve got the creative core of Davis’ work.
An extra Recharge: Thanks to readers who wrote in with tributes to drummer Roy Haynes on his 96th birthday, adding to the 22 musicians we interviewed:
You’ve given me lifetimes of joy and I come home to you every day. Bless you and thank you. I will always come back to your playing. It is the best of life. —Michael T.
Happy birthday to the still-reigning king of percussion, Roy Haynes. Your session at Newport with John Coltrane is the most potent hymn to freedom and the future that I’ve ever experienced. I wish you and all your brothers and sisters everything that you and Trane played and implied. Thank you for the blessings you continue to lay on my ears and my life. Back at ya, infinitely multiplied. Live long and enjoy.
Happy birthday, many more. Chicago fan. Enjoy snap crackle for 60 years. Stay healthy and safe. —Albin C.
Snap, crackle, and oh my God he’s still got pop too! Have a great birthday. —Joe V.
Thanks for the memories and stories of Roy, one of my inspirations as a drummer. Saw him play trio at Jazz Alley in Seattle when suddenly this [very drunk listener] gets on the stage between encores screaming, “We love you, Roy!” He’s standing in front of his drums sipping his brandy while [this person] is pounding his drums. The pianist and bass player pack up while Roy in his cowboy hat and snakeskin boots just stands there with a big smile watching. Security escorts her offstage and the band comes back for one more. —Jud S.
God bless you, Roy. Your longevity gives and sustains life for the great art form you helped to create. Meeting you and jamming with you at places like the Steer Inn, Sonny’s Place, and Gerald’s and listening to your recordings gave my musical life a great lift and inspiration to live performing, composing, and recording. You are the greatest. I hope I get to see you once more. —Greg B.
The signature sound, pulse, stamina, and versatility of Roy Haynes, who turns 96 today, run as deep as the musicians who treasure him express here. For his birthday, I spoke with more than 20 musicians, each invoking a story that anchors Haynes in the pantheon of postwar jazz.
What emerges is not just reverence but a reflection of American rhythm over the 20th and 21st centuries. Haynes swung with Lester Young, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, opening a new path by creating a language within a language. He expanded time instead of just marking it, freeing his hands to play above, around, and across the beat. He has become, as Wayne Shorter says, “a champion”—or, in the words of Mary Lou Williams, “the greatest drummer in the world.”
The interviews, conducted this week, have been edited and condensed. Hit the arrow at the right to return to the top.
Roy! Haynes! Drumming has always existed—someone’s always hit something and made a sound—but then comes Roy Haynes to spark imagination and wonder beyond rhythm and dancing and the pulse of life. Thank God for Roy in his 96th year. I’ve seen him several times, and when you do, you’re changed, your life is enriched. That’s what the music is about, and certainly what he’s been a vessel of his entire life. When you think of Thelonious Monk or Charlie Parker or Trane or Chick, you think Roy Haynes. He plays with levity and depth and so much joy. He’d have his left foot on the leg of the hi-hat stand, not even playing it. Like a dancer. Off the ground.
Dee Dee Bridgewater, vocalist:
There was one time Roy and McCoy were playing on a program, and Roy took a solo. I’ll never forget, he just stood up and started tapping. Oh my lord. I had never seen him tap. I knew he did, but what a moment. He taps like he plays drums. I love everything about Roy Haynes, and we both love cowboys. In the ’90s he was always wearing cowboy boots, so my idea was to get him to do a country-western album [laughs]. I remember we were honoring Max Roach at a tribute up in Harlem, and we were in the green room, and Roy had on some mean cowboy boots. I said, “We gotta do this album,” and he started singing, “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em!”
When he turned 90, I went to see him at the Blue Note, and whenever I see him it feels like he’s just dancing behind the drums. If he insists on getting to the bandstand at 96, baby I’mma try and be there.
Terri Lyne Carrington, drummer and founder of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice:
I’m indebted to Roy. Words can’t express my gratitude for the inspiration he’s given me since I was a kid. I met Roy when I was very young—he would let me sit in on his kit and encourage me as a young girl who wanted to play the drums and had potential. The most important thing is people actually mentoring—mentoring moments. Roy is the hippest, the one I gravitated to when I started teaching, making sure my students check him out. My generation may cite Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette, but I know for a fact that Jack’s biggest influences were Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones. I keep telling my students to go back to Roy, that they’re missing the whole boat if they don’t go to Roy and take a deep dive.
Roy has so much magic. I’d just humbly say thank you—and people bullshit and say stuff like this all the time, but I truly mean it—for providing so much inspiration. He knows I love him dearly. Roy’s way of making the drum set more fluid is unparalleled. He had and has the freedom to move away from 2 and 4, and make the drum set one sound. But you never miss the element of oomph. His playing makes me see other possibilities for myself.
Marilyn Crispell, pianist:
Everything that exists vibrates.
It’s been said that we live in a universe
Composed of music
Recurrent beats from our own heartbeats
To seemingly random or chaotic beats
Part of a pattern too large to see
Waves of a universal pulse.
Happy birthday, Roy.
I played with Anthony Braxton for many years, and I was thinking of his concept of a pulse, like a wave and the phrases that fit it, with a crest and a valley. That larger picture has its own beat, and Roy plays that larger pattern.
Andrew Cyrille, drummer:
When you hear Roy and he’s playing with Thelonious Monk, you know it’s not Frankie Dunlop. You know it’s not Art Blakey. You know it’s not Ben Riley. You know it’s Roy Haynes. There’s a name given to Roy’s playing called Snap, Crackle, Pop. He has a way of assigning rhythm that’s different from other drummers, approaching those beats and the fractions within a bar that gives you a signature, and Roy’s always had a distinct one.
I remember talking to Max when I was a youngster—he was playing at Smalls Paradise—and after he played, I walked over and said, “Max, you played everything,” and he said, “No, I didn’t play everything. There’s a whole universe out there. If you want to find something for yourself, go out there.” That opened the door for me. Roy does too.
Billy Drummond, drummer:
One time I’m playing the Charlie Parker Festival. Max Roach is there, playing solo drums, and he sees Roy in the audience and pulls him onstage and the two of them are telling stories about their time with Charlie Parker. Which was already cool. Roy had just come from a car show where he’d won a trophy for his vintage Bricklin SV-1, which has gull wing doors, like the DeLorean from Back to the Future. After the festival, I’m on my way home and I come across Roy just sitting alone in his car, with the wings up, chilling with his trophy in the back and a cooler with ice and champagne. I say, “Hey, Mr. Haynes!” And he says, “Man, you want some champagne?” And we just hang out. I’m asking all these questions about Trane and Newk and Bud Powell. Just me and Roy on a side street in New York, drinking champagne. In his Bricklin! I got somebody walking by to take a picture of us. I have a few Roy Haynes stories, but encounters like that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.
Every time I see Roy play, it’s a lesson in the mastery of what I’m trying to do. I make a beeline to see him at every opportunity. There’s a clip of him in the ’40s with Lester Young really breaking up time, playing syncopated rhythms that set the template for what came decades later. That’s why he’s the freshest, the hippest no matter what setting. And still is.
Tia Fuller, saxophonist:
Two years ago I got the chance to play with Roy for the Pixar film Soul, and he was an embodiment of history and extraordinary energy. He had more energy than all of us put together. Just to see him not only behind the drums, but I got video of him playing on piano—90-something years old. Here he is having played with all the greats, a legend, and still jumping into this music as optimistic as when he first picked up an instrument. That’s worth volumes.
Marcus Gilmore, drummer:
He’s my grandfather first, but he’s also my hero in a lot of ways on the instrument. Just a blessing every day. He’s one of the most important musicians of the 20th and 21st centuries, that degree of wisdom and information, a learning experience. Not literally “How do you do this?” but being around him, his energy. We’ve always had a special connection. And it’s good you’re talking to Terri. She’s known him a very long time, coming up in Massachusetts together. My grandfather knew her grandfather, and Terri’s been in the community forever, came up in that community between grandpops and Jack DeJohnette.
Tammy Hall, pianist:
Mary Lou Williams comes to mind. She recorded an album with Roy Haynes in 1976 called A Grand Night for Swinging. She said, “He is the greatest drummer in the world.”
I used to be a little skeptical of that—not necessarily his ability, because he is great and one of the most innovative—but I remember first hearing her say that. I thought, “Really? The greatest?” But yes! I agree! Yes, he is the greatest drummer in the world.
I’m working on a piece right now about Mary Lou Williams called Convergence, where she and Nina Simone and Hazel Scott and Dorothy Donegan all meet up in Paris. It’s an oral tradition, an experiential one, and Roy is a mentor to many. I know one of his mentees, a young drummer who’s brilliant, Darrell Green. He’s learned a lot from Roy.
Billy Hart, drummer:
The last time I saw Roy was a year ago, and he still sounds fantastic in his 90s. I remember him at the Vanguard. When I was a teenager, a guy came up to me and said, “Have you checked out Roy? No? Well, you better get on it right away.” When I heard Roy’s recordings, there was my dream played out for me. I went up to Roy and said, “How you doing, Haynes?” And he looked at me and said, “How you doin’, Haynes?” [laughs] I mean, we’ve had Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Roy Haynes. It just keeps going and it’s made an impact. God bless Roy.
Louis Hayes, drummer:
I’d like to give my regards to Roy’s family, such a magnificent family, especially his daughter and two sons and his grandson, Marcus. My respect and regards to all of them, a big part of Roy’s life. Family and community are very important to me, and Roy has been part of this history of what they call bebop. He was there with Charlie Parker, Monk, Dizzy. Happy birthday, Roy.
Harmony Holiday, poet, choreographer:
The first thing I think of is Roy’s Western style. I love how he brought this Black cowboy energy into jazz because no one else really did. That’s a big deal. He still rocks the Black cowboy, and I saw him perform with Jason Moran. I was a big Tony Williams fan, and I got to see Roy live at a festival in Harlem. Roy seemed super young—you couldn’t tell he was the oldest person onstage. I didn’t think about age at all. I just thought about him being this amazing drummer, and he’s backed up Sarah Vaughan.
Jon Jang, pianist:
When I was 17 and getting my feet wet in the music, in 1971, there were two inspirational recordings with Roy Haynes that turned my life around: The live recording of My Favorite Things with John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Roy Haynes, and Jimmy Garrison, and Chick Corea’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, with Roy and Miroslav Vitouš. 96-year-old Roy Haynes joins an unbelievable small group of musicians who keep on keepin’ on creating music at the highest level. Cellist Pablo Casals recorded the Bach Cello Suites in his early 90s. Verdi composed his last opera when he was 80 years old. Eubie Blake was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in his 90s.
Jerome Jennings, drummer:
First time I met Roy, I used to hang with Clark Terry. I used to take CT to hospital visits because a friend of mine asked me, and one night we went to hear Roy at the Vanguard. The fact that I was with CT, Roy was very nice and cool to me, and when I heard Roy play the snare, it felt good. Lot of people when you think Roy Haynes, you think his complexity, but just hearing him lay it down, put it right down the pipe, right down the pocket, that was amazing. He was in his 80s and just jumps up.
One of the first things Roy said to me was, “Do you know my grandson, Marcus Gilmore?” He was singing Marcus’ praises, rightfully so. Marcus is bad. Roy helped create the language for jazz drums, man—him and Max, Art Blakey, Roy Porter, stretching the possibilities. I wish Roy a happy 96th.
Oliver Lake, saxophonist:
I had the pleasure of seeing Roy at the Blue Note and was totally blown away. I was just in awe at how present he was, how he swung the band, lifted the band off the bandstand. He doesn’t age. That he’s 96 is incredible. I’ve performed with his son, Graham Haynes, and throughout my career I’ve been associated with very strong drummers. I just go with the feeling of the drums, the drummers who play from the heart and want to make a complete communication.
Branford Marsalis, saxophonist:
Roy is one of the greatest jazz drummers ever. Pretty much the greatest. I’d say the greatest, yes. I mean, Elvin’s a close second. They’re basically tied, but—in this bizarre quest we have for individuality and innovation, pedagogical competence goes right out the window. When you think about the fact that Roy played with Sarah Vaughan’s trio, which is a specific kind of discipline, and then with Charlie Parker, which is another, then Coltrane, then Monk! And Roy sounds totally different in all four settings.
Roy grew up in that dance era where intensity and the beat were major requirements, and because he did, the shit will always have exuberance, intensity, energy, joyousness. And if the conversation is the usual boring-ass jazz conversation about “singular imprint”—which to me is, you find the five things you do well and play the same shit on everybody else’s records—then no, but if you’re thinking about the level of versatility he has, the shit’s just astounding. It’s something to admire. With a lot of my colleagues, the understanding of jazz comes through harmonic understanding, not basic tap-your-foot impulse. The music has to reflect all of that—and Roy’s does.
Tiger Okoshi, trumpeter:
Happy, happy birthday to Roy. We recorded together with Gary Burton, and I first met Roy at the rehearsal. I thought I was just there to watch. After a few songs, Gary asks me to bring my trumpet and join Roy. I was so nervous, but I tried my best and then I wasn’t nervous. After that, Roy, Steve, and Gary hired me for the gig. Gary says, “We want you to play.” Roy’s snare stuff was unbelievably swinging.
The sound of Roy’s drums: If you know the Japanese taiko drummers, they’re feeling the vibration of the skin—they don’t hit it, they bounce it. That’s how I felt. Roy doesn’t need the cymbals like other drummers. His drums are like boom. Swinging so bad.
Like a Rolls-Royce. I felt I could play anything on top of it. Thank you so much, Roy.
Danilo Pérez, pianist:
How I met Roy: I was in Barbados playing a festival, and a friend of mine and friend of Roy’s went to this club to jam, and I was drinking my glass of wine, so I went over my limit and I was on the happy side. Three hours went by and all of a sudden this hi-hat from heaven joins us. I look and there’s this man with a huge hat and nice boots. I didn’t recognize him, so I’m thinking, “My God, this guy’s incredible, I gotta get him to New York, get him a gig!” I said to him, “Sir, can you give me your phone number? You’ll take New York by storm. What’s your name?” He goes, “My name is RoyHaynes.” I almost fell off my chair.
That night, he took me around Barbados to eat fried fish, and that’s the first time he asked me to play with his quartet. We had that mentorship. One time we’re on a bus listening to Dear Old Stockholm he did with Trane. I’ll never forget how emotional Roy got listening to it. I carry that moment in my heart deeply. He’s cooking with some beautiful colors. And Roy was crucial for connecting me with my history of jazz in Panama. The first person who hired Roy was Luis Russell. Panama has a long history of jazz greats, and Roy was the first to hip me to that.
Reggie Quinerly, drummer:
One time I was at Port Authority at 4 in the morning, taking a train, and who do I see? There’s a short diminutive man in a cowboy hat. I walked up to him and said, “I know who you are” [laughs]. He was nice and cordial, told me he’d been partying all night and was taking the train back to Queens. Just the giddiness I had seeing Roy Haynes. It cannot be overstated how much he means to the music. First time I remember seeing him, he was playing in my hometown of Houston. What struck me was his life force and energy radiating from the drums, hitting me in my chest. That’s the vibe, and that stuff goes on the recordings. To me he plays life.
Wayne Shorter, saxophonist:
Hey Roy, happy birthday man. I’ll never forget the time we had at Slugs. Yeah man you were a champion and still are. You’re always gonna be a champion to me. You know? We love you man.
Marcus Strickland, saxophonist:
A story I love to tell: We’re at a festival in Boston, and after we played we got into a limo, and the limo driver was blasting a Missy Elliott song. Roy knew all the lyrics—every single lyric. I didn’t know the lyrics. That shows me, man, this cat has never ceased to absorb what’s around him. He’s a force, always bringing fire. The first time I saw Roy was at the Vanguard. Russell Malone put out word that Roy was looking for a new saxophonist, and the first thing I notice is Roy’s boots. I’m used to drummers being all up in the hi-hat, but his foot was just chilling on the hi-hat stand donning those boots. And his ride cymbal was so strong he didn’t need the crutch of the hi-hat. Right then and there, it dawned on me how he changed the music.
Nasheet Waits, drummer:
My first introduction to Roy was through my father, Freddie Waits, who had a good relationship with Roy, the way you see old friends interact with jokes and hugs and admiration. I grew up in Greenwich Village and I’d tag along. Mr. Haynes, thank you for blessing us with your presence. You’ve been an inspiration for me and my father. I remember the first time I consciously “stole” something from Roy as a drummer. [laughs] I was in my 20s at the Vanguard. I was studying Roy, and for a week after, I was trying to sound like him, and people were like, “You sound like Roy—you sound like you were listening to Roy all week.” That’s exactly what I was doing. That’s the highest compliment—for a minute. I was like, “You’re right, I did see him last week, and this is All. His. Shit. Right. Here.” [laughs]
Howard Wiley, saxophonist:
First of all, anybody who’s in the lineage of the music so long and playing at a high level, everybody talks about Tony and Elvin and Philly Jo, but when you talk about their associations, you’re talking Roy Haynes. He’s on Dear Old Stockholm with Coltrane. What Roy is playing is so thick. It’s a thing he has and he makes whatever band he’s in. Roy Haynes all day. You talk about the Bud Powell tribute band? Roy. Haynes. All. Day. What I like about these cats, man, the OGs, they’d play the same equipment and sound so different. Roy put out this album that nobody messes with: Praise.
I was playing this gig with Amiri and Amina Baraka at the Malcolm X Jazz Festival with Marcus Shelby, and Amina was like, “Play this song,” and I’m like, “I’m shaky on the bridge,” and when you tell an old-school sister you don’t know something right before you go onstage, you get that look: It’s a very particular Motherfucker, are you serious? You done got me out here? I know that look, but I’m like, “Here’s this Roy Haynes song I really like and I think you’re gonna dig it too. It’s called ‘After Sunrise.’” And we play that. When I tell you I got the biggest hug and kiss from Amina after, and she’s tough, my man. Roy’s music has such a universal love.
First time I met Roy was at a conference. I introduce myself, we start talking. I’mma wear the OGs out, so I’m talking to him for an hour, and how you play all that shit in some cowboy boots? He’s wearing snakeskin pants and cowboy boots killing the drums. The joy he embodies. All praise is due, and happy birthday. This time last year he was scheduled to play Blue Note at 95 and I’m like, this motherfucker is 95 and playing the Blue Note. That’s the dude you wanna be—the drums and the spirit.
Each Friday, we bring you an article from our archive to propel you into the weekend.
In 1997, Mother Jones profiled Marianne Williamson, then a New Age icon. It is—as was noted by the New Republic when Williamson ran for president in the 2020 primaries—a “prescient (and slightly mocking)” piece. Take that for what you will. Williamson has since gotten the treatment from the New York Times Magazine.
The main thing the piece predicts, correctly, is that Williamson would move her self-help style into activism and a political-first attitude. Here’s a section from 1997:
“I’ve always been the first to say that spiritual seeking without service is self-indulgent,” [Williamson] says. “I think the question is: Dear God, how can I serve? Not that I’m trying to figure out what someone needs…I am saying we don’t have the time on this planet to wait until we’re more spiritually evolved to check out what’s going on in this country.” Appendix A to The Healing of America is called “Resources for Activism.” Appendix B consists of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
It’s a nice read, filled with smart points about the evolution of self-help mythology. And it’s got some wonderful one-liners (even if you disagree): “Offering religion without rules, salvation without sacrifice, the former cabaret singer has remade herself into the perfect priestess for a culture steeped in pop.”
Ahead of tomorrow’s wall-to-wall coverage of the one-year anniversary, take a minute to browse every Recharge we’ve run since March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization declared the pandemic. Click one or two. Share good news at email@example.com.
After erroneous reports had circulated that John Coltrane’s house was headed for demolition, confirmation came that it’s safe and sound. CBS-3 Philly was first to debunk the false alarm after prominent sources had spread the misinformation internationally. The contractor at a neighboring property slated for demolition, on North 33rd Street, has to protect adjacent structures. Coltrane’s is a National Historic Landmark. He’d lived there from 1952 through 1958, a span that saw Giant Steps, Blue Train, and collaborations with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.
Miles away, in Queens, New York, a second National Historic Landmark, Louis and Lucille Armstrong’s home, was reinvigorated this weekend with a virtual walkthrough. Rooms were open, stories shared, documents discussed, and music played. And today is International Women’s Day: Queens Public Library, near the house, is streaming a celebration of women in jazz, as are the Detroit Jazz Festival, led by artist-in-residence Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Blue Note Records, with a well-chosen playlist.
Each Friday, we bring you an article from our archive to propel you into the weekend.
In 1996, this magazine asked 40 people—”scholars, journalists, curmudgeons, and poets”—about the most important change they’d seen in the last 20 years. It was an anniversary issue. We began in 1976. And we published responses online in twoparts.
These sort of retrospectives are often the best part of any archive. To see someone think in their particular historical moment is somewhat revealing. To see someone look backwards, with the haughty air of knowledge about what has been “learned,” denudes any pretense—the prevailing zeitgeist of that moment is pinned on a history still playing out up to our moment. So, I went in ready to smirk at the 1990s consensus with all my knowledge. I came out realizing: I’m pretty stuck in my historical moment. (You can see the ouroboros here—a post about my archive posts pointing out my inability to escape my ideological contingencies.)
All that is to say, in 1996 a lot of these answers miss the mark less than I expected.
Take Paul Krugman’s entry, which I thought would be more about globalism as truth. Here it is:
By the early 1970s, throughout Western Europe and to a large extent in the United States, we had managed to produce societies with relatively equal income, relatively little poverty, and all sorts of opportunities for upward financial mobility. While we were a long way from Utopia, you could look around the Western world and say, “These are the most decent societies the world has ever seen.” There are no longer any societies that fit that description.
The current best story for this decline is that technological progress threw us a curve ball. Technology continues to make us richer, but very much devalues the work of people who are not exceptionally talented, and greatly increases the income of a very few. The United States is responding with a flat hostility to the welfare state.
At some point, people will realize just how well-off the well-off actually are, and I don’t think they can continue to blame our decline on government programs. I’m not saying we should instead blame the rich; I’m just saying we should soak them.
Pessimism about the future of the United States began developing 20 years ago and should be dispelled. Lester Thurow’s thesis was that America had peaked economically and was in decline compared to Japan and Germany. He was dead wrong. Japan is in a banking crisis. Germany totally miscalculated the economic costs of reunification, and all of Europe’s unemployment is around 11 percent while ours is under 6 percent.
Wealth is created by venture capital and innovation. We do those best. We are destined to remain the most powerful economic and military power in the world.
My personal favorite is Lewis Lapham’s. Less for anything specific than for a clear line back to my favorite editorial tic. I call it the “whom insertion.” To whom are you speaking? You will see that question inserted in a lot of good magazine writing. It is a way of doing great work breaking down the easily assumed. And I bet some of it comes down to people reading Lapham’s Harper’s. I think the phrase he uses—”who is the ‘we’?”—is a better way to code it. A lot of good writing just asks that basic question.
The big shift in the last 20 years has been from the public to the private sector. The word “public” has become a synonym for corruption and futility. All things bright and beautiful flow forth from the clear stream of the private sector.
Politics was a public thing; the state was something we held in common. Now it’s everyone’s favorite enemy—including those in Washington. The public sector is not a living presence protecting, animating, and inspiring, but has become a dead carcass, a beached whale we Eskimos are going to strip of all its blubber.
It’s a shocking change. Common thought and ideas have declined. I think democracy is over as it was conceived in Philadelphia. We don’t know what the narrative is. That’s why we hate the public. Whose public? Who is the “we”? The times demand a writer or writers who can write the new American narrative.
Roxane Gay is one of the most prolific and versatile writers of our generation. Her works include a best-selling collections of essays (Bad Feminist), a blockbuster memoir (Hunger), the Black Panther comics, and countless essays of cultural criticism. She has a New York Times advice column on work, money, and careers. Add to all this, a book of writing advice coming out in November called How to Be Heard, and a screenplay for Hunger and a YA novel that are works in progress. And, oh yes, she also has a podcast and is running a monthly online book club.
How does she do it? How has she cultivated her voice over the years? How does she write things that make a difference?
Gay answers these questions and more in her sharp and accessible series on MasterClass called Writing for Social Change. She joined Jamilah King for a conversation in late February. For the full experience, listen to their interview on the Mother Jones Podcast or read the transcript below, which has been lightly edited and condensed.
Jamilah King: I wanted to start by asking you about something that you said in the course: that cultural criticism brought about the revolution we’re experiencing in entertainment right now. I speak as a big TV buff, and there’s been no better time to watch TV. How would you describe that revolution and the role of cultural criticism in making it happen?
Roxane Gay: I don’t know that cultural criticism made it happen. I think that our television tastes have evolved and matured, and writers have been given more leeway. I think it was really paid cable premium cable that made it possible, and it is cultural criticism that sustained it and gave it the gravitas that it now has.
What is cultural criticism to you?
Cultural criticism is the way we contextualize the media that we consume. We tend to do it based on who we are, and what we prefer and our identity. Cultural criticism that I might write is going to be vastly different from the cultural criticism that a white guy is going to write, or that an Asian woman is going to write. I think that’s what makes it such a rich field. When it’s done well and you have a diversity of perspectives—not just in terms of demography, but in terms of intellectual thinking and ideas and aesthetic—it makes for a really rich conversation. We’ve seen some really great conversations about film and television and literature in recent years.
How do you approach blending cultural criticism and politics? Do they automatically go together, or are they different?
I feel they go together. I think culture exists on a spectrum. A lot of what we see on our televisions and in movie theaters has been shaped by the political climate.
So there’s this term that I honestly hate: “culture wars.” It’s a term that’s been bandied about for decades. Does it mean anything to you? And if it does, how do you think it’s changed over the years?
It doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. I think it’s the kind of thing that people say when they’re too lazy to engage with the world as it is, and they want to dismiss the very material realities of most people’s lives. I get really frustrated when people are like, “Oh, it’s the culture wars.” What precisely does that mean?
Right. Nowadays there’s something called canceled culture. Does that actually exist?
No, it does not. Cancel culture is this boogeyman that people have come up with to explain away bad behavior and when their faves experience consequences. I like to think of it as consequence culture, where when you make a mistake—and we all do, by the way—there should be consequences. The problem is that we haven’t figured out what consequences should be. So it’s all or nothing. Either there are no consequences, or people lose their jobs, or other sort of sweeping grand gestures that don’t actually solve the problem at hand.
Speaking of cancel culture, there’s been a major story happening in the small but mighty world of podcasts. I’m sure you know the Reply All/Bon Appétit controversy. Reply All has announced that they’re canceling the series partway through due to some really disturbing revelations that came to light about the host. What are your thoughts on this?
I think it’s a mistake. I understand that the reporting is not finished on the final two episodes. But this is not the Mona Lisa. Somebody can finish these stories. I think the Bon Appétit story is interesting. And it’s typical. And it deserves to be told. I think it’s really reflective of how important the story is that two of the creators of the Reply All reportage were doing some of the same behaviors they were reporting on. It just speaks to how endemic this issue is. It would be a step in the right direction for Reply All to finish those two episodes and release them, and then do a third episode about what happened with Reply All.
You said that it’s typical. What do you mean by that?
A lot of media organizations have serious problems. The Gimlet situation is not special. It’s not unique. There are all kinds of faves who are really terrible and who are not really interested in progress, change, or making room at the table for others. That’s unfortunate because they’re working from a place of scarcity, and this idea that there can only be a chosen few. I get where that comes from. But I don’t think it’s a useful way of being a professional. Then some people are just mean and petty. I think people should be whoever they are, but when your meanness is racist and homophobic and transphobic and any other kind of bigotry, that’s where the problem lies, and it has to be addressed.
I saw that recently, you interviewed Sohla El-Waylly, the chef and Youtube star who very publicly left Bon Appétit, on your podcast, Hear to Slay. I know that fried chicken was a major topic of discussion. But did you learn anything from her that changed your insights into what happened at Bon Appétit?
What I learned is about the human cost of being at the center of one of these stories. It’s not fun for the person. Sohla was a delight. The renewed interest in her was a long time coming and deserved. I got the impression, though, that she just wondered, are you going to be here next month? Next year? Are you going to care then? In a few weeks people are going to forget all about what happened at Bon Appétit. It won’t come up again until another media property is exposed for being a mess. There’s so much about consequence culture that we really need to think through and talk about to figure out: What does happen next? How do we sustain this level of energy? Especially given the political climate of the past four years, I understand why we have very limited attention spans. But the underlying issue is is racism and misogyny and so many other forms of bigotry. So how do we root that out? How do we create equitable workplaces where people can thrive?
It seems like you get inspiration from everywhere. You were recently interviewed by AV club about your love-hate relationship with HGTV. How do you approach the things you watch, read and listen to as fodder for your own cultural criticism?
I actually don’t go into watching pretty much anything with a mind to use it as fodder for cultural criticism. I’m generally watching something for pleasure, and I see something that makes me think. Then I start to follow that thread. The only time I watch something going in knowing I’m going to do cultural criticism about it is when I get an assignment.
You talked in your MasterClass about how expertise comes in a lot of different packages. What are some of the barriers to entry that still exist in media?
The biggest barrier is either you have generational wealth, or you don’t. And if you don’t, it’s a lot harder to take these ridiculous $35,000 a year jobs. The jobs are not ridiculous, but the pay is. Living in New York on $35,000 a year is a real challenge. Frankly, living on in New York for under $100,000 a year is a challenge. It is done all the time. I’ve done it. You know, I’ve been that $35,000 a year person. And less. Fortunately, I was able to do it elsewhere. When you’re living in Charleston, Illinois, or Houghton, Michigan, it’s like, yeah, I can make this work. But would I have been able to make it work in the city? No. I think it’s really that about removing some of the economic barriers so that a more diverse range of people are able to take these jobs. It’s not a pipeline issue. And I wish people would stop dismissing it as one.
Do you think the pandemic and COVID and people working remotely so often is gonna maybe change a little bit of that?
I do. I have a project coming up that’s going to be announced, and I’m going to be hiring an editorial assistant. Normally they would have to be in New York, but now they can be anywhere. I’m really excited about that. I think more publishers and people in media are going to be willing to consider remote candidates.
So back to MasterClass, the self-help space is overwhelmingly white. Books, shows, all of it. That can be really tough if you’re Black and queer. What does it mean for you as a Black feminist to be on a platform like MasterClass?
It’s great to have many, many, years of writing—well before anyone even knew who I was—recognized. Maybe I do know something. Maybe I am something of an expert on writing. It’s great to be recognized. The most important thing to me is that I’m not the only one. Who’s next? I don’t know who that next person is going to be, but I could give you 10 names. I am excited, but I hope that this is just the beginning and that MasterClass continues to recognize that there is a lot of talent out there. A lot of Black women, queer women, women across the racial spectrum are ready and willing and able to step up to the plate and demonstrate their excellence.
I want to talk about a particular video in the MasterClass series about how you write about trauma. You also published a Scribd essay recently, Writing into the Wound, and a really interesting conversation with Monica Lewinsky about trauma that was published in Vanity Fair. How do you approach writing about trauma in a way that is generative and useful and not exploitative?
There are a lot of different ways. A lot of times I choose to write directly into it because nothing is worse than the trauma itself. For people to understand the effects of trauma, they need to understand just how profoundly people have suffered. I think that there’s a way to do it without being exploitative. That’s not the only way to do it. But I find that that can be a really useful way: to not flinch.
So your MasterClass is called “Writing for Social Change.” What does social change mean to you?
To me, it means finding ways to get people to consider other points of view, because that’s the logjam in a lot of our political discourse. We are, and I include myself in this, very deeply entrenched in what we believe. There’s very little that’s going to move us. Take, for example, reproductive freedom. There’s literally nothing you’re going to say that’s going to make me change my mind about a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. So how do you have productive conversations about that with people who believe in the sanctity of life but don’t think that it extends to women? It’s challenging. And so you have to find ways to write beyond that impasse and try to reach people so that they will be open to changing their minds. Once they’re open, okay, now what more do I need to do to get you to actually change your mind? So that we can see some movement from the really stark divides that we’re currently dealing with, not only in this country, but in many countries around the world.
Tomorrow, as you know, is National Grammar Day, which makes today a good time to brush up on history. President George W. Bush wrote a letter commemorating the day’s founding, in 2008, on White House stationery, replete with two spaces after periods. I’ve contacted the George W. Bush Presidential Center to authenticate the letter:
The White House
February 29, 2008
I send greetings to those celebrating National Grammar Day 2008.
Effective communication is critical to understanding the needs of others and building a prosperous future for our country. By encouraging proper grammar in speech and literature, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar helps educate people about the importance of mastering the English language. National Grammar Day is an opportunity to recognize how communication skills can help more Americans prepare for the challenges ahead and compete for the jobs of the 21st century.
I appreciate the members of SPOGG and all those dedicated to inspiring a love of learning in their fellow citizens. Your efforts help strengthen the character of our Nation.
Laura and I send our best wishes.
George W. Bush
I’ve also attempted to contact the Office of George W. Bush to seek comment, but his Media Inquiries contact page is broken. Clicking “Submit” yields an error:
I tried on multiple browsers:
Dear Office of George W. Bush,
I’m writing about National Grammar Day, which is this Thursday, and want to confirm with you that President George W. Bush did in fact write the landmark February 29, 2008, letter on White House stationery commemorating the day’s inauguration as I’ve seen at www.quickanddirtytips.com/images/ngd/bush-letter.jpg. Could you please authenticate the letter? Does President Bush stand by the day?
The day was founded by Martha Brockenbrough, the author of Things That Make Us [Sic], and although pedantry and prescriptiveness are actually the things that should make us [sic], there’s something recharging about a commemorative day, as long as grammar is viewed expansively and pluralistically and free of piety and sanctimony, including the right we all have to write run-on sentences. Tomorrow is World Grammar Day; today we run sentences on. And yes, you noticed that I just promoted National Grammar Day to World Grammar Day. It contains multitudes. Bush, known for his uniquely Bushian style, can join (or not).
If you observe the day, immediately donate $5 or $50,000 and nothing in between to Mother Jones. I will thank you. I am not suggesting quid pro quos, whose plural I have unpacked. But I am suggesting a moral imperative to safeguard democracy and the independent reporting on which it depends by donating $900 million to Mother Jones today—act fast—and not a penny shy. (You can donate any amount.) Unless you dislike democracy. Send strongly worded letters to firstname.lastname@example.org. Never use two spaces after a period.
Harry Belafonte and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on March 24, 1965 in Montgomery, AlabamaBettmann/Getty
In 1956, a New York musician born to Caribbean immigrants “released the first million-selling LP in history,” wrote Joshua Jelly-Schapiro in a vital 2011 interview with the artist and activist. “Harry Belanfonte was bigger than Elvis”—a knowingly fraught comparison that quickly gets released: “But where Elvis built Graceland, Belafonte used the proceeds from Calypso to bankroll his friend Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement for civil rights” and propel one of the paramount marches and coalitions in American history. Belafonte is the only person “to talk to both King and Bobby Kennedy on a daily basis through those years” and secured the airlifting of a plane of Kenyan students to the United States in 1961. On that plane was Barack Obama Sr.
The many links, lineages, and threads that intersect in Belafonte’s life are traced in that interview. It’s an incredible Q&A. Returning to it now, on the week of his 94th birthday, expands the impact of the West Indian American singer and songwriter who, the interviewer pointed out, was “a critic of a president who would not have been possible without him.”
Read it here, and revisit Belafonte’s sit-in on The Tonight Show as host with guests including King, Kennedy, Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Wilt Chamberlain, and Freda Payne.
As intergenerational collaboration goes, a big new one: Jason Moran and Archie Shepp have teamed up on Let My People Go, a pitch-perfect dialogue between piano and saxophone. Shepp was active in the civil rights movement and created theater and music in response to the Attica prison uprising. As Shepp told me, “I’ve been engaged, speaking out, and raising money for radical organizations my entire life” of 83 years and counting, finding new voices onstage and off. If you’re new to Moran, start with this ballad.
Lastly for today, bassist Christian McBride joins organist Cory Henry tonight at 7 ET / 4 PT as part of Newport Jazz Fest on Instagram live.
More than 400 players from 45 countries competed in the first Online Chess Olympiad for People With Disabilities recently, and the games are growing. Programmers are developing a virtual platform for blind and limited-vision players to access “all the functionalities and possibilities” of online chess, according to the International Chess Federation (FIDE).
And a Recharge salute to five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand, from India, who just launched the Global Chess League, with eight teams from across the world.
"Drop the I-Word" launched in 2010 as a campaign to change "illegal alien" and "illegal immigrant" to "undocumented immigrant" and other terms, a call answered by the Biden administration.Manuel Navarro/Picture Alliance/Getty
In a major milestone for immigrants’ rights activists seeking shifts in language and law, the Biden administration has dropped “illegal alien” from government communications, taking federal agencies out of the business of branding people—instead of actions—illegal. The move marks the culmination of the yearslong “Drop the I-Word” campaign, spearheaded by author and Mother Jones board member Rinku Sen. Her movement is widely credited with creating much of the groundwork for retiring the phrase.
The shift was made in an internal Homeland Security Department memo directing officials to replace “alien” with “noncitizen,” and “illegal” with “undocumented.”
“I feel real pride” in the change, Sen tells me. Biden’s decision wouldn’t have been possible, she says, if it weren’t for many broader changes first, especially in the media. “This would have been much harder for the administration to do if we hadn’t first changed most journalistic and some governmental practice on the I-word.” Many newsrooms including ours use “illegal” only to describe actions, and Sen had amplified that distinction. (Tell us at the bottom of this post which language changes should come next.) But she’d met heavy resistance from some newsrooms whose editors construed her pitch as a call for euphemistic substitution rather than a material improvement to accurate reporting.
“We faced a lot of cynicism from movement people, news consumers, and journalism at the beginning,” she says. “Some thought it would make no difference, some thought it was less important than focusing on policy change, and some thought there was no need for a shift. But as we told more stories about how the word affected peoples’ actual lives, momentum began to build.”
The Associated Press agreed when in 2013 it dropped “illegal immigrant” from its stylebook after a group of 24 scholars issued a statement calling “illegal immigrant” neither neutral nor accurate. Protesters, including a son of César Chávez, marched outside the New York Times headquarters that year with signs that read “No Human Being Is ‘Illegal’ Drop the I-Word,” and delivered more than 70,000 signatures asking the Times to change its use. The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, had written, “I see no advantage for Times readers in a move away from the paper’s use of the phrase ‘illegal immigrant.’”
In response to the protest, Times standards editor Phil Corbett loosened the guideline but stopped short of a one-size-fits-all rule. He said “undocumented” “has a flavor of euphemism and should be approached with caution outside quotations.”
“Flavor of euphemism” is telling here. It too has a flavor of euphemism, and it gets to the heart of many language choices: Is there anything more variable and less neutral in journalism and law than a flavor palette? Maintaining any living guidelines is tough work made tougher by an ethic in journalism that assigns equal and equivalent weight to all interpretations of a phrase. Although “undocumented” doesn’t always fit—some immigrants have documentation short of authorization—“undocumented” has never been a euphemism; it’s always been a clarifying corrective to the euphemism before it.
That’s why a landmark Supreme Court opinion omitted the term “illegal immigrants” in 2012 except when quoting other sources. It’s why New York City’s Commission on Human Rights issued language guidelines to similar effect. And it’s a change boosted by Sonia Sotomayor when she became the first Supreme Court justice to issue an opinion using “undocumented immigrant.”
One of the unspoken assumptions of top editors is a need to balance the appearance of not getting out over their skis—jumping to a wrong “side”—with the appearance of not being a hired guard of old convention. That’s a separate debate. The clearest measure of language is which words serve the facts and truth on which our work depends. That’s all; the rest is reputational. The rest gets you friends and critics, but if you count on those, you’ve lost the plot, which is to improve accuracy, reduce harm, and frame fairly. “Illegal immigrant,” unlike “undocumented immigrant” and “illegal immigration,” is a grammatical misfire because it’s a misreading of history.
The archives agree: “Illegal immigrant” and “alien” are cudgels. “Alien” was baked into this country’s founding vocabulary to strip British of personhood and legal rights. It appears in the Alien and Sedition Acts to limit criticism of government and make citizenship harder to come by. That’s the backdrop of Donald Trump’s five uses of “illegal alien” in last year’s State of the Union, and his Justice Department’s memo telling federal prosecutors to say “illegal aliens” instead of “undocumented.” It’s the reason he named a National Day of Remembrance for Americans Killed by Illegal Aliens.
The Times has long avoided “illegal aliens.” But “illegal immigrants” is misplaced on the same grounds. It’s “pejorative,” says Richard Prince, media critic and author of the Journal-isms newsletter, who tells me, “Remember that in 2019, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists disinvited Fox News as a sponsor of its convention. NAHJ returned $16,666 after Fox radio host Todd Starnes’ comments about ‘a rampaging horde of illegal aliens’ in reference to Latin American migrants.”
“Why go out of your way to antagonize people? Language changes,” Prince tells me.
The Times’ internal guidelines still accept “illegal” to modify people, not just actions. In an email last week, Corbett told me, in part, “We are continuing to discuss possible additional changes. We encourage writers to use a variety of terms and be as specific as possible in describing individual circumstances.”
The truth about labels is that they constantly change, and editors without a trace of misguided intention can be left using earlier defaults while judged by today’s practices—a feature of label evolution. But the euphemism treadmill is not what’s happening here. One has always been more accurate. Perhaps Biden’s decision to change will be a tipping point for the media too.
What do you think? Share your ideas below. (Our style guide is here.)
Less than a week after the health journalist Julia Métraux, who is hard-of-hearing, tweeted about Zoom’s lack of free captions as an accessibility and human rights issue, the company has met the call. Until yesterday, Zoom hadn’t offered closed captions on free accounts, unlike Skype, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams. The feature is vital for deaf and hard-of-hearing users and many second-language learners. In a statement to Métraux last night after her inquiry for a Gizmodo article that published moments ago, Zoom said it plans to release live captions for everyone this fall, and people can fill out transcript requests in the meantime.
“It should not have taken as long to get captions on Zoom as it does for people to get vaccines during a pandemic, but glad it happened,” Métraux tells me.
Zoom said it made the change to “provide a platform that is accessible to all of the diverse communities we serve,” though Métraux also credits a petition by hearing-loss advocate Shari Eberts—with more than 80,000 signatures—and a class-action suit against Zoom from people with hearing loss. The combined efforts “likely played a role in the announcement,” she says.
The first high-resolution color image sent back from NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover on February 18, 2021NASA via Getty
Since Mar-a-Lago isn’t going anywhere, let’s skip town for Mars. Far away, on a planet less warped than one that elected Donald Trump and invented American cheese product, NASA has given us the first sounds ever recorded from the planet’s surface. Just as impressive is the first panorama from the rover.
A recap of Mars music is in order: Mars Breslow, the jazz photographer, has a classic portrait of Ornette Coleman, and Mars Volta, the rock band, has a song fit for Mars. Bruno Mars, the singer, has one. And John Coltrane’s “Mars,” from Interstellar Space, is transcendent. Here’s one from Branford Marsalis, who makes the cut because “Mars” is right there in his name and he’s got a riveting live one of “Giant Steps.”
It’s been a big time for the planet generally. Scientists recently cracked a mystery. Glaciers on Mars reveal many ice ages, offering a glimpse into its past and settling whether the planet has had just one ice age or multiple. Not that ice ages are paradise, but expanding our understanding of what’s beyond us—beyond our news cycles, election cycles, supply chains, bicycle chains, chains of favorite restaurants—can sharpen our perspective by scaling our sense of space. And a new study finds that Earthly organisms could temporarily survive there.
Mars, you know, is named after the Roman god of war, so, on that subject, heed this warning from astronomer Carl Sagan: “Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears.” Careful where you plant your hopes and fears. And take my colleague Jackie Flynn Mogensen’s advice: “Stop Building a Spaceship to Mars and Just Plant Some Damn Trees.”
Lastly, recall H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, in which Martians try to escape their dying planet by invading Earth. They appear to have succeeded.
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