The legislation is an emergency intervention to provide paid leave and other support to millions of workers sidelined by school closures, quarantines and caregiving.
An obvious question you’re probably wondering is, “How will it affect me?”
The bad news is that the law does not provide blanket coverage for all workers. Instead, it’s a confusing mess – legislative Swiss cheese, full of exceptions and gradations that affect whether you are covered, for how long and how much pay you can expect to receive.
I study employment law and have combed through the bill to make sense of it. The law also provides emergency funding for unemployment insurance and subsidizes some employer health care premiums, but my focus here is on the core elements pertaining to sick and family leave.
Here’s what I learned.
Small, medium or large
To figure out whether you are covered, the first thing you’ll need to answer is how many people work at your company.
If your employer has 500 or more workers, it is excluded from the new law. Instead, workers at those companies will need to rely on any remaining sick leave benefits available under company policy or state law.
Several states, including New York, California and Washington, are also considering emergency legislation tied to the coronavirus pandemic and may offer some relief for workers at these bigger companies. These workers can also make use of the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides for unpaid leave if the employee or a family member falls seriously ill.
In addition, some large employers have made new accommodations for their workers. Walmart, the nation’s largest employer, for example, has extended its sick leave benefits for hourly workers. And coffee chain Starbucks expanded its existing sick leave policy to provide paid leave of up to 26 weeks if an employee contracts COVID-19 and is unable to return to work.
If your company employs fewer than 500 people, you should be covered by the new law. But there’s another exception: Businesses with fewer than 50 employees can make use of a hardship exemption if providing leave might put them out of business.
Assuming your company is covered, the amount of leave available – and how much workers can expect to get paid – will depend on the reason you aren’t able to report to work or do your job remotely.
Here’s where it gets really complicated.
If you are stuck at home due to the closure of a child’s school or day care, you will be eligible for leave under two separate parts of the new law – paid sick leave and family and medical leave.
Congress seems to have structured the law to allow working parents sidelined by a school closure to use both forms of leave at once. Parents would request up to 12 weeks of leave as family and medical leave for a school closure. But since this part of the law doesn’t offer pay until the third week, parents could use the new sick leave provisions to receive income for the first two weeks.
Whether you’re using sick or family leave, you can expect to receive two-thirds of your usual pay, or up to US$200 per day. The money would come directly from your employer who will be reimbursed by tax credits.
Alternatively, people could use the sick leave for the first two weeks and then take 12 weeks under family leave, for a total of 14 weeks, but that would include two weeks that are unpaid.
If you have any available vacation or sick pay under your company’s policy, you may want to use that first since it typically provides full pay.
What happens if you get sick
Workers who are directly affected by the new coronavirus can expect more generous income replacement – but only briefly.
If you are under government-ordered quarantine or isolation, self-isolating at the instruction of a health care provider or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis, you can make use of the new federal sick leave law for up to two weeks. During this time, you should receive your usual pay, capped at $511 per day.
If you become seriously ill beyond two weeks, the new law does not offer additional paid leave. However, you may be eligible to take another 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. This covers only companies with more than 50 people and workers employed there for longer than 12 months. During this time, your job is protected, but you may be required to use any accrued sick leave or vacation available under company policy.
The rules are similar if you are caring for someone who is under government-ordered quarantine or isolation or has been ordered to self-isolate by a health care provider. The only difference is that your income would be only two-thirds of your usual pay, capped at $200 a day, for two weeks.
And again, if you are caring for a family member who becomes seriously ill, you may be able to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the 1993 act without losing your job.
In normal times, legislation like this would have been considered broad and ambitious, but as the crisis deepens, its exclusions will likely leave vulnerable workers exposed. With another stimulus bill in the works, Congress will have another chance to help Americans whose lives have been turned upside down by this pandemic.
As a disaster law scholar, I study vulnerable populations during various stages of disaster response. In the age of coronavirus, people are asking me questions about their rights. Here are some answers.
1. I had contact with someone who has the coronavirus. Am I required to go into quarantine or isolation?
The answer: It depends. The Constitution gives states the power to police citizens for the health, safety and welfare of those within its borders. This means states have the right to quarantine an individual, community or area to protect the surrounding community. With testing supplies in limited quantity and high demand, citizens are strongly encouraged to self-isolate. However, if you are a citizen who came into contact with a person with the coronavirus in a different country and then flew home, CDC officials at the airport have the right to detain you and force you into quarantine.
That said, quarantine and isolation laws vary widely, as do the consequences of breaking them.
In some states – including California, Florida and Louisiana – breaking an order of quarantine or isolation can result in misdemeanor criminal charges. Jail time could be up to a year, along with penalties ranging from US$50 to $1,000.
Those under quarantine can have visitors, but physical interaction may be limited to prevent the spread of the disease. Limitations, depending on your state or local regulation, can include confining you to a specific physical space and barring physical touching, including hugging and kissing.
You can find a list of state laws about quarantine and isolation on the National Conference of State Legislatures website.
2. Who can enforce quarantines?
All three levels of government have the power to quarantine.
States can quarantine citizens who present with symptoms within their borders. Local governments can quarantine smaller communities or areas of individuals that present with the coronavirus symptoms. The federal government too has responsibilities; it has the power to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries.
And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has the authority to detain and examine anyone arriving in the U.S. suspected of carrying the coronavirus. That includes passengers from airplanes, motor vehicles or ships.
The CDC can also issue a federal isolation or quarantine order, which allows state public health authorities to seek help from local law enforcement to administer and enforce the federal quarantine orders.
3. Under what circumstances can I be tested for coronavirus?
At this time, no legislation has been passed to create a legal right to testing.
The CDC website bases testing criteria on the following ailments: You have a fever; you develop virus symptoms; you recently traveled to an area with an ongoing spread of the virus; or you have been in contact with someone known to have the coronavirus.
But with the current shortage of tests, you still may not be able to be tested. As testing becomes available, the restrictions on testing may also change.
4. My state has declared a state of emergency; will that affect my rights?
According to the National Governors Association, as of March 17, “State emergency/public health emergency declarations have been issued for each state and territory, as well as the District of Columbia.”
A state of emergency allows a state to activate its emergency or disaster plan, along with the accompanying resources. It also allows states to help with local response efforts, including providing money for personnel and supplies.
The state of emergency can affect your rights because states have used emergency declarations to close or restrict the hours of private businesses, close schools and public buildings, and enforce curfews for citizens.
There are federal-, state- and local-level declarations of emergency.
In Oregon, the governor used its state of emergency, according to the Associated Press, to activate “reserves of volunteer emergency health care personnel, especially important in rural areas,” develop guidelines for private businesses and aid employees by defining the coronavirus as a valid cause for sick leave. The addition of the sick leave definition will allow employees to take leave to care for their own sickness or for an immediate family member.
Now he’s on trial for his life, and prosecutors are planning to do what they’ve done to hundreds of other accused hip-hop artists: Use his own lyrics as evidence against him.
Because my research centers on African American literary and musical traditions – with a particular emphasis on hip-hop culture – I was asked by the defense to testify as an expert witness in Drakeo’s first trial.
This is work I’m called to do quite regularly. My best guess is that I’ve consulted on over 60 cases in which prosecutors have used rap lyrics or videos as evidence of guilt. In addition, my research with University of Georgia law professor Andrea Dennis has uncovered more than 500 instances in which prosecutors have used this strategy, a number we’re certain is just the tip of the iceberg.
As an expert witness, my job is to correct the prosecutors’ characterizations of rap music. They routinely ignore the fact that rap is a form of artistic expression – with stage names, an emphasis on figurative language and hyperbolic rhetoric – and instead present rap as autobiographical.
In effect, they ask jurors to suspend the distinction between author and narrator, reality and fiction, and to read rap lyrics as literal confessions of guilt.
No other art form is exploited like this in court. And yet it’s an effective strategy precisely because it taps into stereotypes about rap music and the young men of color who are its primary creators.
Lyrics on trial
To recap Drakeo’s legal drama: Last year, he was charged and tried in connection with a shooting at a party that resulted in the death of a 24-year-old man named Davion Gregory.
According to prosecutors, the shooting was botched. Drakeo, they claimed, had ordered the shooter to kill a different person – a musical rival who raps as RJ.
Their evidence was flimsy. RJ wasn’t even at the party, and there’s no evidence he and Drakeo ever had violent confrontations. In fact, RJ has repeatedly said that he doesn’t believe he was ever targeted by Drakeo. One of the district attorney’s own witnesses also said Drakeo didn’t know the shooting was going to happen.
So to bolster their case, prosecutors focused on Drakeo’s music. At one point, for example, they cited a line from his song “Flex Freestyle,” in which he raps, “I’m ridin’ round town with a Tommy gun and a Jag / And you can disregard the yelling, RJ tied up in the back.”
The line was fictional; nobody claims that RJ was ever tied up in the back of Drakeo’s car. Nevertheless, prosecutors wanted the jury to believe that the lyrics were actual reflections of Caldwell’s desire to harm an industry rival.
Despite the prosecution’s efforts to use Drakeo’s music against him, it didn’t work: In July 2019, the jury acquitted Drakeo of most counts, including the multiple counts of murder.
Nonetheless, prosecutors are taking the unusual step of retrying Drakeo on a charge on which the jury deadlocked the first time around: criminal gang conspiracy.
In 2014, for instance, San Diego prosecutors charged Brandon Duncan, who raps as Tiny Doo, with criminal gang conspiracy in connection with a series of shootings that took place in San Diego in 2013 and 2014. Nobody argued that Duncan participated in or even knew about the shootings. Nor was he in a gang.
But citing the same law now being used against Drakeo, prosecutors said his violent rap lyrics promoted gang violence – and that Duncan benefited from that violence in the form of enhanced “street cred.” So for crimes that everyone agrees Duncan didn’t commit or know about, prosecutors sought to put him away for 25 years to life. He sat in jail for more than seven months before a judge finally threw out the charges against him. Duncan later filed a lawsuit for wrongful arrest in the case, and just last month he settled with the city of San Diego for over US$700,000.
Duncan was far more fortunate than most young men who have their lyrics weaponized against them in court. The vast majority of the cases we’ve found end in conviction, often with lengthy sentences.
To highlight just a few of the recent cases I’ve testified in: There was Victor Hernandez, sentenced to life in prison for murder in Arizona; Christopher Bassett, sentenced to life plus 35 years for murder in Tennessee; and Ronnie Fuston, sentenced to death for murder in Oklahoma.
The question is not whether these young men committed the crimes they were convicted of. The question is whether they received a fair trial from an unbiased jury. When rap lyrics are introduced as evidence, that becomes highly dubious.
There’s a rhyme and a reason
Introducing rap lyrics can be highly effective for prosecutors because it allows them to draw on stereotypes about young black and Latino men as violent, hypersexual and dangerous. In front of a jury, that can foment prejudice.
Not only have I seen this firsthand, but there is also empirical evidence that reveals just how prejudicial rap lyrics can be. For example, in the late 1990s, psychologist Stuart Fischoff conducted a study to measure the effect of explicit rap lyrics on juries.
Participants were given basic biographical information about a hypothetical 18-year-old black male, but only some were shown a set of his violent, sexually explicit rap lyrics. Those who read the lyrics were significantly more likely to believe the man was capable of committing a murder than those who did not.
In a study conducted by social psychologist Carrie Fried, participants were given a set of violent lyrics without any indication of the artist or musical genre. In reality they were from the 1960 song “Bad Man’s Blunder” by the folk group Kingston Trio. Researchers told one group of participants that the lyrics were from a country song, and told the other group that they came from a rap song. In the end, participants who believed the lyrics came from a rap song were significantly more likely to view them as dangerous, offensive and in need of regulation. It’s worth noting that Fried’s study was replicated in 2016, with similar findings.
These studies – and others – highlight the enduring racial stereotypes that inform people’s perceptions of rap music. They also help explain an obvious double standard at work, one that the Supreme Court of New Jersey laid bare in a 2014 opinion that denounced the use of rap lyrics as evidence:
“One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ actually shot a sheriff, or that Edgar Allan Poe buried a man beneath his floorboards, as depicted in his short story ‘The Tell–Tale Heart,’ simply because of their respective artistic endeavors on those subjects. Defendant’s lyrics should receive no different treatment.”
Unfortunately, however, they do receive different treatment, even as rap has emerged as one of the world’s most popular and influential genres.
It has also grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry, one that offers a chance at upward mobility, particularly in communities where such opportunities are desperately hard to come by.
Criminalizing it is cruel, unjust and silences some of the people most in need of a voice.
Alabama is the only state where people with multiple felony convictions are required to register with law enforcement and carry special ID cards, legal experts say. When felons are caught without them, they can be arrested and fined or jailed.
by Connor Sheets
When a sheriff’s deputy pulled Emmanuel Pullom over on a suburban street near Birmingham, Alabama, the night of Dec. 1, 2018, he suspected that Pullom had stolen the black Ford pickup he was driving.
The deputy handcuffed Pullom, searched the truck and then took him to the Jefferson County Jail in downtown Birmingham, according to the incident report.
But Pullom wasn’t charged with stealing the truck, which he says he had recently purchased from a friend. Instead, he was charged with failing to possess a piece of laminated paper that identified him as a felon.
“The cop said, ‘Where’s your felon card?’” Pullom recalled in an interview last month. “I said, ‘What kind of card?’ He said, ‘If you’ve got three felonies, you’ve got to get a felon card.’”
More than 300 people in Alabama have been charged since 2014 under a little-known, but long-standing state law requiring people with more than two felony convictions to register with their local sheriff’s offices and carry cards identifying them as repeat felons, according to arrest data analyzed by AL.com and ProPublica.
Violations carry the threat of jail time and fines. A man in north Alabama served a one-year sentence for failing to register as a felon and obtain a felon registration card.
While some other states have felon registration requirements, criminal law professors said they believe Alabama is the only one with a law requiring registration cards.
Legal experts say the law is likely unconstitutional and reminiscent of slavery-era restrictions that required black people in many parts of the South to present identification to white people on demand.
“The card is reminiscent of the cards Jews were forced to carry in the ghettos,” John H. Blume, a criminal law professor at Cornell Law School, said via email.
“It will also give police the ability to stop people they know are felons to see if they have their cards and … to avoid things like reasonable suspicion and probable cause.”
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, which arrested Pullom, did not respond to requests for comment.
Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran, the top law enforcement official in Alabama’s second-largest county, defended the requirement. He said the charge “gives you a good stepping stone” for jailing someone suspected of other crimes, when there otherwise isn’t enough evidence to make an arrest.
“This guy’s a five-time felon or something,” Cochran said in an interview. “And you say, ‘Hey, where’s your convicted felon thing?’ And he says, ‘Well, I don’t have one.’ You say, ‘Well, hey, bud, I [didn’t] have nothing to arrest you on, but now I do.’”
“‘So now I’m gonna arrest you, now I’m gonna inventory your car and tow it in. And if I found 5 pounds of pot in your car, then you’re gonna be arrested for trafficking marijuana.’”
Repeat felon Derrick Rhodes has a different take. In 2016, he was arrested in Henry County and charged with failing to possess a felon ID card. Rhodes, 41, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 days of suspended confinement and two years of probation and ordered to pay hundreds of dollars of fees, fines and court costs. He has since obtained a felon registration card that he carries everywhere he goes
“What’s the use of having a card on you when you’re a free man?” he said. “I’m not their prisoner no more.”
“It Shall Be the Duty”
Beginning in the 1930s, jurisdictions across the U.S. instituted so-called criminal registration laws in response to rising concerns about organized crime and other illegal activity.
In 1935, Birmingham became an early adopter of such restrictions when it passed a city ordinance requiring that felons register with law enforcement “upon their arrival in the city,” The New York Times reported at the time.
“Police officials hope that the law will give them an accurate check upon the criminal element. … It also is expected that it will result in an exodus of a great many known criminals.”
Many such laws and ordinances have since been invalidated or repealed, but the federal government and individual states have instituted a series of increasingly restrictive sex offender registry laws since the 1980s. And many states and localities across the U.S. have approved narrower registration laws that apply to people convicted of specific crimes, such as arson, serious drug crimes and gun violence.
Florida, Mississippi and Nevada have felon registration requirements, but they do not require felons to have or carry registration cards, sometimes referred to as “ex-felon cards.” In fact, Nevada law specifically bars such requirements: “The sheriff of a county or the chief of police of a city shall not require a convicted person to carry a registration card.”
In 1966, a special session of the Alabama Legislature approved the Alabama Felon Registration Act, which instituted the statewide felon registration requirements that remain in place today.
Lawmakers passed the legislation “to aid the law enforcement agencies in detecting and preventing and reducing recidivistic behavior,” according to an article about the law published in the 1966-67 edition of the Alabama Law Review.
The law requires that anyone who “resides” in Alabama and “has been convicted more than twice of a felony” anywhere in the U.S. must “register within 24 hours after his arrival in the county” and obtain a registration card from the sheriff’s office.
“It shall be the duty of such person to carry the card with him at all times while he is within the county and to exhibit the same to any officer of a municipality, a county or the state upon request.”
The maximum penalty for failing to obey the felon registration law is 30 days in jail and a $50 fine per day spent in violation, which can add up to lengthy and expensive sentences over time.
From 2014 to 2018, there have been 235 arrests in Alabama on state charges of not having a felon ID card and 53 arrests for the separate charge of failure to register with the local sheriff. Police also made nine arrests of felons who failed to notify the local sheriff of a change of address. Individual law enforcement agencies across the state have reported dozens more arrests on the charges in 2019 and this year.
Of those arrested on the charges between 2014 and 2018, about 61% were white and 38% were black, according to the state data. As of July 2019, the U.S. Census estimated that 69% of Alabama residents were white and 27% were black.
Such arrests are made in large urban counties like Jefferson, Montgomery and Baldwin, as well as in more rural counties like Franklin in Alabama’s northwest corner and Henry in the southeast.
Public records show that some local jurisdictions in Alabama have additional requirements. Arrest reports show that people have been charged in recent years in Alabama towns including Gadsden and Dothan with violating local ordinances requiring felon registration and identification.
A limited number of places outside Alabama, such as Zanesville, Ohio, and the Borough of Berlin, New Jersey, also have felon identification laws or ordinances on their books.
Sometimes people serve serious time for failing to carry their felon IDs.
Quincy Tisdale says that at the time of his arrest in August 2014, he was “the only black man living on Sand Mountain,” a low ridge in north Alabama. “So I stuck out like a sore thumb.” He was also dating a white woman, a fact that he says drew the ire of some white residents of the largely rural area, which has a long history of racial tension.
So the 38-year-old father of three says he was regularly pulled over and searched by Marshall County sheriff’s deputies and local police officers, but they never had cause to arrest him.
One morning a Marshall County sheriff’s deputy stopped Tisdale in his silver Kia sedan as he drove through the small town of Grant and informed him that he had found a reason to lock him up.
“When he pulled me over, he said, ‘Didn’t I tell you I was gonna get your black ass one day?’” Tisdale recalled during a January interview in the living room of the friend’s home in Scottsboro, where he is currently staying.
“He said: ‘I know you don’t got your felon ID card. Come on, get out of the car.’ … When they arrested me that day, that’s the first I heard I had to have a felony card or I’d go to jail.”
Tisdale, who had previous felony convictions for crimes including burglary, theft and assault, was arrested and booked into the Marshall County Jail and charged with failure to register with the sheriff’s office and failure to possess an ex-felon card. It is the only time Tisdale has been arrested in the county, according to state court records. His bond was set at $1,500, court records show.
Tisdale pleaded guilty to the charges in October 2014 and was sentenced to 365 days in the Marshall County Community Corrections work release program — a residential jail alternative in which inmates earn money to pay down fines, fees and restitution by working for contracted companies. Tisdale says that while he was at the work release, he worked long hours deboning and loading chickens at a poultry processing plant.
In February 2015, after breaking the rules of the community corrections facility and getting into an argument with an employee, Tisdale was moved to the Marshall County Jail, where he served out the remainder of his sentence, court records show. He says that the punishment upended his life.
“When you take me away from my family, and I’m supporting my family, you’re pushing them out onto the streets,” he said.
Marshall County Sheriff Phil Sims, who became sheriff in January 2019, said his office does not “actively” seek out people violating the state’s felon registration and identification law.
“It’s not one of those things where we’re going out banging on doors or I’ve got someone assigned to look for people who haven’t registered,” he said. “It would generally be a secondary charge where there’s some other type of law enforcement contact like a domestic violence call or something.”
But he said that the law serves a valuable purpose, “kind of like the sex offender registry,” and that he would enforce it if his office were notified that someone in Marshall County had failed to register as a felon or obtain a registration card. Neither Sims’ predecessor, J. Scott Walls, who was sheriff at the time of Tisdale’s arrest, nor Walls’ attorney responded to requests for comment.
Tisdale says it’s an indignity to be forced to carry a felon ID card for the rest of his life: “It reminds me I’m a criminal, day in and day out.”
Like each of the criminal law professors interviewed for this story, Pullom said he never knew that Alabama required people with more than two felony convictions to carry registration cards.
He said that he only found out about the requirement when he was arrested for violating it, and that he believes the charge was little more than a pretense to apprehend him.
“Did I have drugs on me? Did I do anything wrong? No,” said Pullom, who has been convicted of several felonies including shooting a gun into an occupied building, drug possession and theft. “They were just trying to come up with something to arrest me for.”
In fact, the arresting deputy wrote in the incident report that the felon ID card charge would allow the sheriff’s office to hold Pullom in jail and “follow up with a property crimes detective … on any other charges.” The felon ID charge was dismissed two months after his arrest and no additional charges were filed.
Lynneice Washington, district attorney for Jefferson County’s Bessemer Division, said that “you’re marking a person” by requiring them to carry a felon registration card. She added that she does not recall having ever heard of felon registration or ID charges being brought in her division, which is a subsection of the county that does not include Adamsville, where Pullom was arrested.
“Just to stop a person because you know them and know their history and to ask them if they have a felon identification card and that’s an automatic charge if they don’t have it, I don’t agree with that,” she said.
In the 1957 case Lambert v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue of felon registration. A woman named Virginia Lambert had been found guilty of violating a Los Angeles municipal law that made it “unlawful for ‘any convicted person’ to be or remain in Los Angeles for a period of more than five days without registering.” The conviction was upheld on appeal.
But the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the California ruling. The majority wrote that Lambert’s constitutional right to due process had been violated because she most likely had no “actual knowledge” that not registering as a felon was a crime.
“So the question would be whether Alabama has done a better job giving notice to someone that they need to register and/or get the ID card,” Rachel E. Barkow, a law professor and faculty director of the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at New York University School of Law, said via email.
The piecemeal enforcement of Alabama’s felon registration and identification law also raises concerns, according to Alvin Bragg, a visiting law professor at New York Law School and co-director of the school’s Racial Justice Project.
Two-thirds of the state’s 67 counties saw no such charges brought between 2014 and 2018.
“Ultimately every law has got to be rational and not arbitrary and that’s the standard of review,” Bragg said. “I think this comes perilously close to being irrational and excessively arbitrary.”
Michele Deitch, senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Law and Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, said it would be difficult to argue that a year in jail is not a disproportionately harsh punishment for failing to carry a felon ID card.
“It would be challenged as an 8th Amendment violation,” she said. “It’s disproportionate to the underlying offense. And cruel and unusual — is there another locality that would sentence you to a year for that? Probably not. So that’s pretty unusual.”
Sometimes simply failing to change an address can land a person behind bars.
That’s what happened to Michael Kelsay, who has been on law enforcement’s radar in Baldwin County for years. The father of three says that he sold his pickup this winter because he was tired of being pulled over nearly every time he left his trailer park.
A self-described former drug addict and petty criminal, he has a rap sheet spanning two decades, during which time he has been convicted of crimes including drug possession, negotiating a worthless instrument and receiving stolen property. The 39-year-old has also been arrested on two separate occasions for crimes related to felon registration.
The first arrest took place one morning in August 2014, when Baldwin County sheriff’s deputies banged on the door at Kelsay’s mother’s house looking for him. When he came to the door, he says they informed him they had heard he was the last person seen with a criminal suspect they were trying to find.
After searching the area and determining the suspect was not there, Kelsay says one of the deputies ran his name through an electronic system, saw he was a repeat felon and asked him for his felon identification card.
“I show it to him. I’m like, ‘Boom, got it.’ They’re just grasping at straws, I feel like. Like, I’m good now,” Kelsay said during an interview in his kitchen last month.
“And then he hit me with, ‘Well, you don’t live at this address anymore,’ because I told him I was staying at my mom’s. I didn’t see the trap coming.”
Kelsay was arrested and charged with failing “to register, within 24 hours, his/her change of address or place of residence with the sheriff of Baldwin County,” according to court records. He says he was temporarily living at his mother’s house, 3 miles down the same road in Bay Minette from the address listed on his felon ID card.
Kelsay posted $5,000 bond and was released from jail three days after the arrest.
He was arrested a second time a month later and charged with failing to possess a felon registration card — he said the sheriff’s office had seized his card at the time of the first arrest because the address was incorrect and he had not replaced it — and again failing to notify the sheriff’s office that he had changed addresses. He pleaded guilty to the three charges that resulted from the two arrests and was sentenced to concurrent sentences of 30 days in jail and ordered to pay three $50 fines.
Anthony Lowery, chief deputy of the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office, defended the arrests.
“He was knowingly, willingly violating the law,” he said. “Obviously anytime you have a known convicted felon — like in this case Mr. Kelsay has been convicted multiple times of different crimes — [felon registration] does help. It’s a tool to protect the public.”
Lowery added that the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office pursues people who break the state’s felon registration law:
“If you’re asking if we’re just going out searching for these people, on occasion yes. … We’re charged with enforcing the law and if you’re a felon and you’re required to register and you’re violating the law then we’re going to enforce that.”
What sticks with Kelsay to this day is the idea that he was arrested because the law forever puts him in a separate category.
“I was flabbergasted by it. I couldn’t believe they took me to jail for that,” he said. “That’s what really bothers me about it is I feel like they charged me with that because they wanted me to go to jail.”
Republished with permission under license from Propublica.
The measure, championed by Ben Baker, a Republican lawmaker, calls for establishing review boards who would determine whether materials in libraries contain or promote “nudity, sexuality, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse.” In addition, the boards, which would be comprised of parents, would root out materials lacking “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
Librarians who defy the review boards by buying and lending such materials would be subject to misdemeanor charges, fines upward of US$500, and a potential jail sentence up to one year.
The children’s book “And Tango Makes Three,” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell and illustrated by Henry Cole, was challenged and banned from libraries around the country for many years after its publication in 2005. The picture book is based on a true story of two male penguins in New York City’s Central Park Zoo who adopt and care for an egg and then keep caring for their daughter, Tango, after she hatched.
Separately, opponents of the storytime program known as “Drag Queen Story Hour” at libraries and other community venues, have held protests to ban and condemn such events aimed at children. The objections voiced by protesters stem from their belief that drag performers are evil and amoral and that exposure to drag queens will, in their view, cause children to become gay.
The Missouri bill is not the first of its kind. State lawmakers in Colorado and Maine both tried to pass similar legislation in 2019. Both efforts failed.
Librarians are professionals. Librarians working in K-12 school libraries also earn certification as school library media specialists. Librarians have expertise in children’s literature, collection development, child development, psychology, readers’ advisory, reference services and other specialized skills needed to serve children and young adults in a variety of settings.
In short, librarians are more than capable of selecting and purchasing quality books and other materials for people of all ages.
To imply otherwise, as I believe the proposed Missouri measure would, is to insult these skilled educators. If it should be enacted, I would consider it a potential threat to information access, intellectual freedom and the freedom to read.
As a historian of mathematics, I have studied women in that field and use the book “Hidden Figures” in my classroom. I can point to some contemporary ideas we can all benefit from when examining Johnson’s life.
1. Mentors make a difference
Early in her life, Johnson’s parents fostered her intellectual prowess.
While at West Virginia State, Johnson took classes with Angie Turner King. King taught at the laboratory high school while she worked to become one of the first African-American women to earn masters degrees in math and chemistry. She would go on to earn a Ph.D. in math education in 1955.
King taught Johnson geometry and encouraged her mathematical pursuits. Thirteen years older than Johnson, she modeled a life of possibility.
Once Johnson completed the standard mathematics curriculum at West Virginia State College, Claytor created advanced classes just for her, including a course on analytic geometry.
Mathematics concepts build on one another and the mathematics she learned in this class helped her in her work at NASA many years later. She used these analytical skills to verify the computer calculations for John Glenn’s orbit around the earth and to help determine the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon, among others.
3. Grit matters
Long before psychologist Angela Duckworth called attention to the power of passion and perseverance in the form of grit, Katherine Johnson modeled this stalwart characteristic.
Initially, Johnson would ask questions about the briefings and “listen and listen.” Eventually, she asked if she could attend. Apparently, the men grew tired of her questions and finally allowed her to attend the briefings.
Later, she joined the West Computing Group at Langley Research Center where women “found jobs and each other.” They checked each other’s work and made sure nothing left the office with an error. They worked together to advance each other individually and collectively as they performed calculations for space missions and aviation research.
6. The power of women advocating for women
Although Johnson started as a human computer in the West Computing Group, after two weeks she moved to the Maneuver Load Branch of the Flight Research Division under the direction of Henry Pearson.
Dr. William "Bill" Key, was born a slave in Murfreesboro, TN in 1833. While enslaved, Key became a successful veterinarian who decades after the Civil War trained the famous "Beautiful Jim Key", known as the smartest horse in the world.
Bill was owned by Captain John Key. When Bill was five years old, the Captain's died and willed Bill to his cousin, John W. Key of Shelbyville, Tennessee. Bill demonstrated a special way with animals as early as six years of age. He also was a great help to the John W. Key family when it was observed that the disabled father of John W. Key was much calmer when Bill was around.
However, the place where Bill really shined was around horses, he demonstrated a remarkable talent for working with horses and mules. He was so effective with horses that he was soon being sent to the pasture alone to train the horses. Additionally, he was given special attention because of his work keeping his master's father company. John Key taught Bill reading, writing, mathematics, and science. As a child he Bill read veterinary texts and experimented with animal remedies until he became a successful veterinarian and horse dentist. Known as Dr. Key, he also practiced dentistry and other healing arts for slaves.
Martha, John's wife, really appreciated the effect Bill had on John's father as it saved her from having to deal with the recalcitrant old man. She taught Bill such gentlemanly skills like presentation, elocution, and etiquette. These skills would all come to be most valuable to him later when he became an adult and found himself in need of them to succeed as a free man after the Civil War.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Dr. Key accompanied his master's two sons to Fort Donelson. There he constructed his own shelter, a log-covered dugout known as Fort Bill, in which he took refuge and offered protection to his masters during Union bombardment. When Fort Donelson surrendered, Key helped his masters escape to Confederate forces commanded by Nathan Bedford Forrest. After the battle of Stones River, the Sixth Indiana regiment captured Key as he tried to smuggle another black man through Union lines. He was sentenced to hang, but the execution was postponed when it was learned that he was a good cook and poker player. Playing poker with Union officers, Key purchased his release in exchange for their gambling debts. Captured and sentenced to hang on another occasion, Key purchased a delay of execution with one thousand dollars he had sewn between the soles of his shoe. Confederate raiders liberated him the next day.
The relationship between the John W. Key family and Bill continued to grow stronger and after the Civil War when the Key family lost everything, Bill, who by then had accumulated quite a sum of money, stepped in and helped send John W. Key’s two sons to Harvard.
After the war, Dr. Key and his former masters found the family estate in ruins. The elder Key had died, leaving the family lands heavily mortgaged. Key developed and marketed Keystone Liniment for various animal and human ailments. With proceeds from gambling winnings and Keystone Liniment sales, he quickly paid off the mortgage for his former masters and subsequently underwrote their education. When asked about his unusual generosity toward his master's family over the years, he is said to have responded, "I was one of those fortunate men who had a kind master."
William Key's Wives
Though he was eventually married to four notably beautiful, educated women, Dr. Key had no children of his own.
Dr. Key was first married to Lucy Davidson, the daughter of Arabella Davidson. Lucy was born in February of 1832 and died on August 17, 1885. She is buried in Willow Mount Cemetery in Shelbyville.
Dr. Key took for his second wife, the sister of Lucy Davidson. She was Hattie Davidson, but Hattie did not live very long, she died about 1886.
Dr. Key took for his third wife, Lucinda Davis, the daughter of George and Harriett E. Davis. Lucinda was born on February 24, 1859, and died August 21, 1896, with her burial in Willow Mount Cemetery. Lucinda Davis Key, MD, received her medical degree at Howard University, one of the first black women doctors licensed to practice in the state of Tennessee.
Dr. Key established a leading veterinary practice and horse hospital in downtown Shelbyville on a lot he purchased on North Main Street. While he had no formal training, his reputation of being able to do wonders for horses caused him to be considered a veterinarian by the townspeople. He also opened a racetrack, a restaurant, a hotel, a wagon shop and operated a successful pharmaceutical business. The liniment business became so profitable, he promoted it across the South. He organized a traveling minstrel and medicine show, at which his animals performed skits to demonstrate the apparent effectiveness of his medications.
Within five years, “Dr.” Key was one of the most prosperous men in Shelbyville. This gave him the resources to turn his attention to the sport of kings, horse racing, and his goal was to breed the world’s fastest racehorse.
Beautiful Jim Key
While in Tupelo, Mississippi, Key bought a badly abused Arabian bay, Lauretta, from a defunct circus. He nursed the mare back to health and bred her to Tennessee Volunteer, a Standardbred stallion. She produced a colt so sickly that Dr. Key considered having it destroyed. Instead, he named it Jim, after the town drunk, who had a similarly wobbly gait. After treating Jim with his own medicines, Dr. Key nursed Jim to good health, he watched as the misfit colt eventually transformed into a gorgeous mahogany bay.
In narrating Jim's unique education, Dr. Key notes that he was already fifty-six years old when the sickly Jim was foaled. When Jim's mother died, the orphaned colt refused to be separated from his owner and trainer, causing such a ruckus in the barn that Dr. Key was forced to take the colt into his home. For the first year of his life, Jim lived as a human, absorbing language and abstract concepts to a staggering degree. When he outgrew the house and moved back to the stables, Dr. Key noticed that the animal let itself out of gates, opened drawers to retrieve apples, and responded with affirmative and negative nods to questions. Dr. Key set up a cot out for himself in the stable to sleep with Jim. The two were inseparable companions and partners from then on.
Key put Jim on a rigorous training routine that lasted for seven years. When finally exhibited, Beautiful Jim Key could read, write on a blackboard, spell, do math, distinguish among coins and make change, identify playing cards, play a hand-organ, tell time, sort mail, cite biblical passages and respond to political inquiries, among other amazing feats.
Although Beautiful Jim Key was clearly gifted his opportunities were limited by Dr. Key’s race. No matter how eloquent he was, or how talented, because Dr. Key was a black man in the 1800s he was only allowed to participate in selected competitions.
In 1897, Dr. Key was asked to serve on the “Negro Committee” at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in Nashville. "Beautiful Jim Key" made his stage debut in front of none other than President William McKinley. President McKinley offered high praise for both the horse and the training methods. Dr. Key often emphasized that he used only patience and kindness in teaching the horse, and never a whip.
Albert R. Rogers, a wealthy officer of the American Humane Association, witnessed the performance and was especially gratified that Key's training methods consisted entirely of positive rewards for performance. Rogers negotiated the right to exhibit the horse nationally, advanced Key a large sum of money, and promised that Jim would not be separated from Key as long as either lived. Key, Beautiful Jim, and grooms Sam and Stanley Davis of Shelbyville, traveled to the Rogers estate in New Jersey where, for several months, Key prepared Beautiful Jim for his New York City debut. In August 1897 Beautiful Jim amazed viewers and the New York City press and quickly became a celebrity.
This horse became one of the most famous celebrities, animal or human, in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Dr. Key and Beautiful Jim Key became the toast of two World's Fairs and even had their own pavilion at the St. Louis fair in 1904.
The Beautiful Jim Key exhibit was one of the first shows to open at the beginning of the St. Louis World's Fair and was a popular top moneymaker. William Key performed in front of then-President Teddy Roosevelt's daughter, Alice. Jim Key spelled Alice's name- “Alice Roosevelt Longworth,” adding the surname of her escort.
The Beautiful Jim Key exhibit building was called the Golden Horseshoe Building and cost $12,000; Carson-Hudson & Co were the architects. The price of Admission to see the Beautiful Jim Key exhibit was 15 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. The exhibit made a profit of $51,654.28 dollars; the equivalent of nearly $1.5 million in 2020 dollars.
Jim became the number one box office star in the nation and energized the worldwide animal welfare movement, making the phrase "be kind to animals" a household ideal.
Known as the "Marvel of the Twentieth Century" and "The Greatest Crowd Drawer in America," the two were seen by an estimated ten million Americans and written about in every major newspaper. Fans collected his promotional pamphlets, souvenir buttons, postcards, and photos, bought Beautiful Jim Key pennies, danced the "Beautiful Jim Key" two-step, wore Jim Key gold pinbacks in their collars, and competed in Beautiful Jim Key essay contests, while millions signed up to join and support humane groups around the country. Two million children joined the Jim Key Band of Mercy and signed his pledge, "I promise always to be kind to animals."
When Dr. Key traveled along with Beautiful Jim, the horse traveled in private train cars, drank purified water and ate hay that was fit for a star of his caliber. He also had quite an entourage. He traveled with Dr. Key, two grooms, a veterinarian and Monk, a former stray dog that served as the horse’s companion and bodyguard. Monk, the dog liked to stand on the horse’s back.
For nine years, Key, Rogers, and Beautiful Jim toured major cities east of the Rocky Mountains and performed at large venues from Atlantic City to Chicago.
Universally praised for Service to Humanity, Beautiful Jim Key and Dr. William Key retired after their record-breaking 1906 season when Jim's rheumatism caused the two to return to Shelbyville with the plan to resume after a year's rest. Three years later, Bill passed away at age 76, causing a stir even in death by the large numbers of mourners – black and white – who attended his memorial.
In 1912, Beautiful Jim Key died on a cool autumn day, "passing out with all ease," as Dr. Key's brother-in-law, Dr. Stanley Davis, wrote to Albert Rogers.
For a century, this astonishing, true story of an American hero who rose to international fame a century ago, spurring a significant shift in human consciousness, has been buried in history.
Rap-video that every young person thinking about not voting must see
by Denise Oliver Velez
I jumped for joy when I saw the latest video from Tyheir Kindred, a Dayton, Ohio rapper who goes by the name of YelloPain. It’s called, “My Vote Don't Count.” Check him out, @YelloPain
I’ve spent years trying to teach young folks about why they should vote, which has often been frustrating, because many of them are getting strong messages that tell them why they shouldn’t be bothered. I’ve even dragged out the old Schoolhouse Rock video, “I’m Just a Bill” trying to explain how a bill becomes a law to young people who don’t seem to get civics in school.
Kindred switches from rapping in the introduction about why people are discouraged and why they think their votes don’t count, to why they have to vote. He breaks down the difference between the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government, and makes it clear that elections are not just about the President.
He has offered non-voters a better education about the power of voting in this short video than most young folks will ever get in school.
In all my years of teaching, I never had a college student who knew the names of their state assembly person or state senator. I rarely had students who could name their DC congressional rep or our two senators. I remember watching long lines of students on my campus, which lasted till the polls closed, voting for Obama in 2008. Two years later, I stood outside the campus polling place, and only about 11 students showed up during the three hours I watched. Midterms were just not important. Congressional elections were not important. YelloPain addresses this in his rap (see full lyrics here)
We gotta focus on the Legislative branch; yeah they the ones that make the Laws
Yeah they the ones that write how much food stamps money you get on the card
But when people that wanted to help us wanted the job
I know they probably lost
Cause we ain’t even know they name, we ain’t know they face, we ain’t know at all
So the Congress or the State House that’s the Legislative, they make Laws
So what we want from the President is what they do, okay y’all?
See they election every two years but we don’t ever even go to those
The Congress they could raise minimum wage
but we ain’t even really know it though
So you know how back in ’08, when we all voted for Obama
We was all supposed to go back in 2010 and voted for the Congress
Cause they the ones that make child support laws
They the ones choose if your kids at school get to eat steak or corn dogs
The state house makes the courthouse
So if the country fail you can’t say it’s them, it’s your fault
Cause ya ain't know to know to vote for Congress members that was for y’all
And they don’t gotta leave at the four years and we just let ‘em sit
See, they don’t want to tell you this they want you to focus on the President
What I like most about Yellopain's video is the emphasis on the concept that "All politics is local", a common phrase in U.S. politics and how he explained the realities of the executive branch.
My father and I have debated about Trump since he became president. I've always assumed Trump would be re-elected; even during the Mueller era and through the impeachment process. The first time I believed that Trump might not be re-elected was when I saw the first Michael Bloomberg commercial and realized the billionaire class probably doesn't care which billionaire gets elected. Trump and Bloomberg will promote tax and other policy that benefits billionaires. Systems are designed to protect the wealth, power and self-interest of those who create them.
"None Dare Call It Conspiracy" was a book written in 1971 that asserted, modern political and economic systems in most developed nations are the result of a sweeping conspiracy by the power elite. Billionaires control media and contribute the most to candidates and their support determines who can realistically run for high office. The 1939 movie, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" illustrates that point perfectly.
For the first time in nearly 40 years, I don't have a preferred candidate in the Democratic primary, I don't care who wins the nomination, none of them excites me. Bernie Sanders who would have been my preferred candidate out of those still standing disappointed when he originally expressed that he did not support reparations. Ultimately, I believe Bloomberg will capture the nomination. As mentioned a few years ago in "Billionaire Overthrow of Government": billionaires are no longer content with simply influencing or directing the actions of others, they want the actual authority that comes from holding public office.
Each new Presidential administration, whether it be Republican or Democrat continues the same basic policies of the previous administration which it had so thoroughly denounced during the election campaign. The Democrats and Republicans seem to be engaged in good cop/bad cop, but are actually working towards the same agenda because nothing ever changes.
As Killer Mike so eloquently expressed, we're arguing about which presidential candidate will make the better slave master.
A century ago, on Feb. 13, 1920, teams from eight cities formally created the Negro National League. Three decades of stellar play followed, as the league affirmed black competence and grace on the field, while forging a collective identity that brought together Northern-born blacks and their Southern brethren. And though Major League Baseball was segregated from the 1890s until 1947, these teams played countless interracial games in communities across the nation.
After World War II, Jackie Robinson hurdled baseball’s racial divide. But while integration – baseball’s great experiment – was a resounding success on the field, at the gates and in changing racial attitudes, Negro League teams soon lost all of their stars and struggled to retain fans. The teams hung on for a bit, before eventually folding.
Years ago, when I worked on a documentary about the Negro Leagues, I was struck by how many of the interviewees looked back longingly on the leagues’ heyday. While there was the understanding that integration needed to happen, there was also the recognition that something special was forever lost.
A league of their own
Given the injustices of the 1890s – sharecropping, lynchings, disenfranchisement and the Supreme Court’s sanctioning of segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson – exclusion from Major League Baseball was hardly the most grievous injury African Americans suffered. But it mattered. Their absence denied them the chance to participate in a very visible arena that helped European immigrants integrate into American culture.
While the sons of white immigrants – John McGraw, Honus Wagner, Joe DiMaggio – became major leaguers lionized by their nationalities, blacks didn’t have that opportunity. Most whites assumed that was because they weren’t good enough. Their absence reinforced prevailing beliefs that African Americans were inherently inferior – athletically and intellectually – with weak abdominal muscles, little endurance and prone to cracking under pressure.
The Negro Leagues gave black ballplayers their own platform to prove otherwise. On Feb. 13, 1920, Chicago American Giants owner Rube Foster convened a meeting at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City to organize the Negro National League. A Texas-born pitcher, Foster envisioned a black alternative to the major leagues.
Northern black communities were exploding in size, and Foster saw the league’s potential. Teams like the American Giants and the Kansas City Monarch regularly competed against white teams, drew large crowds and turned profits. Players enjoyed higher salaries than most black workers, while black newspapers trumpeted their exploits, as did some white papers.
But the Negro National League’s ascent was stunted after Foster was exposed to a gas leak, nearly died and suffered permanent brain damage. Absent his leadership and hammered by the Great Depression, the league disbanded in 1931.
Life in the Negro Leagues
A proving ground
Gus Greenlee, who ran the popular lottery known as the numbers game, revived the league in Pittsburgh in 1933 after a sandlot club called the Crawfords, which included the young slugger Josh Gibson, approached him for support. He agreed to pay them salaries and reinforced their roster with the addition of flamethrower Satchel Paige.
Greenlee went on to build the finest black-owned ballpark in the country, Greenlee Field, while headquartering the Negro National League on the floor above the Crawford Grill, his renowned jazz club in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
Pittsburgh soon became the mecca of black baseball. Sitting along America’s East-West rail lines, the city was a requisite stop for black entertainers, leaders and ball clubs, which traveled from cities as far away as Kansas City. Its two teams, the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, won a dozen titles. Seven of the first 11 Negro Leaguers eventually inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame – stars like Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Satchel Paige – played for one or both squads.
The sport, meanwhile, became a major source of black pride.
“The very best,” Pittsburgh-born author John Wideman noted, “not only competed among themselves and put on a good show, but [also] would go out and compete against their white contemporaries and beat the stuffing out of them.”
“There was so much [negativity] living over [us] which we had no control [over],” Mal Goode, the first black national network correspondent, recalled. “So anything you could hold on to from the standpoint of pride, it was there and it showed.”
Sacrificed on integration’s altar
For Major League Baseball, no moment was more transformative than the arrival of Jackie Robinson, who, in 1947, paved the way for African Americans and darker-skinned Latinos to reshape the game.
But integration destroyed the Negro Leagues, plucking its young stars – Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Roy Campanella and Ernie Banks – who brought their fans with them. The big leagues never considered folding in some of the best black teams, and its owners rejected the Negro National League owners’ proposal to become a high minor league.
Like many black papers, colleges and businesses, the Negro National League paid a price for integration: extinction. The league ceased play after the 1948 season. Black owners, general managers and managers soon disappeared, and it would be decades before a black manager would get a chance to steer a major league ballclub.
The playwright August Wilson set his play, “Fences,” which tells the story of an ex-Negro Leaguer who becomes a garbageman in Pittsburgh.
“Baseball gave you a sense of belonging,” Wilson said in a 1991 interview. At those Negro League games, he added, “The umpire ain’t white. It’s a black umpire. The owner ain’t white. Nobody’s white. This is our thing … and we have our everything – until integration, and then we don’t have our nothing.”
The story of African Americans in baseball has long been portrayed as a tale of their shameful segregation and redemptive integration. Segregation was certainly shameful, especially for a sport invested in its own rhetoric of democracy.
But for African Americans, integration was also painful. Although long overdue and an important catalyst for social change, it cost them control over their sporting lives.
It changed the meaning of the sport – what it symbolized and what it meant for their communities – and not necessarily for the better.
Soul of the Game is a 1996 made-for-television movie about Negro league baseball.
Who was Saint Valentine? Well, Saint Valentine was a priest. Or maybe, a bishop. Or possibly, a martyr… an African martyr. Ahhh, listen to the wingnut heads explode as we consider the possibility that good old St. Valentine might not have been a blue-eyed blonde-haired European, but a Berber, a Semite, an Ethiopian. Maybe, in fact, a recognizable black man.
Little is known personally about Saint Valentine the martyr of Africa. But he would have lived in the multi-ethnic, multi-colored world of later Imperial Rome, where Africans played key roles in the development of "Western" Civilization. Whether it’s founding monasticism, writing literature, developing theology, or sitting on the imperial throne of Rome itself, Africans were everywhere in this world. Join me for a joint Valentine's Day-Black History Month special, as we try to re-imagine the world of Saint Valentine…in all its colors.
The World of St. Valentine
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February.” One was a priest in Rome, the second one was a bishop of Interamna (now Terni, Italy) and the third St. Valentine was a martyr in the Roman province of Africa. Of the three men known as "Saint Valentine," the African martyr is the least well known; no romantic associations are attached to his legend, and beyond his martyrdom in what is now North Africa around the year 270, little is recorded of his life. In that year, Roman rule encompassed many provinces across the northern band of the continent, stretching from Egypt to modern-day Morocco.
In the previous centuries, northern Africa had seen waves of colonization by Semitic-speaking Phoenicians (Carthage), Greek-speaking Macedonian and Hellenes (in Libya and Egypt). These newcomers mixed with the native Afro-Asiatic inhabitants of the area, dubbed "Berbers" by the Greeks. It wasn't a compliment; the term is related to the term "barbarian" as a derogatory name for non-Greek speakers: people whose language was nonsense–"berberberberber," the approximate equivalent of "blablahblah." Their own name for themselves is "Amazigh" or "Imazighen," "free men."
By the time of St. Valentine, the entire northern part of Africa had come under Roman jurisdiction, in the form of the provinces of Mauritania, Numidia, “Africa” (which included Tunisia as well as parts of Algeria and Libya), Cyrenaica, and Egypt. Ethnic Latins and the other peoples of the Roman Empire mingled with all of the other peoples of the area. Throw in extensive trading links to Nubia (Kush) and Ethiopia, and we can imagine those provinces as an ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse mix of peoples, languages, and goods. Kushite mercenaries mixed with Romanized Amazigh merchants, Egyptian priests of Isis, and Greek-speaking Latin administrators in the cities of Alexandria and other cities. From these provinces, Rome was well-supplied with grains, figs, grapes, beans, marble, pottery, olives, textiles, and papyrus. Many goods, many languages, and many colors of skin.
Philosophers and Emperors
Ideas, religions, and philosophies flowed in and out along with the trade goods. Part of the wider Hellenistic (Greek) world, Alexandria in particular attracted many noted philosophers and produced its own. Alexandria would be come legendary for its library and its schools, for philosophers such as the great female mathematician Hypatia (of a much later period).
A few others included Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived in Alexandria around 40 CE, worked to reconcile Jewish teaching with Greek philosophy. The Athenian philosopher Antiochus of Askalon eventually settled in Alexandria, and taught a number of pupils, including Arius Didymus. Didymus, a Stoic thinker, was a friend of Emperor Octavian (Augustus); allegedly their friendship helped save Alexandria from destruction as he battled Mark Antony for control of Egypt and Rome.
Did I say friends of emperors? How about Africa as the source of emperors? In CE 193, Libyan native Lucius Septimius Severus was proclaimed emperor by his troops. Although not born into the Senatorial class, he had been made a senator by Marcus Aurelius in 172, and had made a name for himself in the army. His rule was rent by wars and financial difficulty, but he also made significant military and legal reforms in the Empire:
Severus brought many changes to the Roman military. Soldiers' pay was increased by half, they were allowed to be married while in service, and greater opportunities were provided for promotion into officer ranks and the civil service. …. The emperor created a new, larger praetorian guard out of provincial soldiers from the legions. Increases were also made to the two other security forces based in Rome: the urban cohorts, who maintained order; and the night watch, who fought fires and dealt with overnight disturbances, break-ins and other petty crime…. The emperor's position as ultimate appeals judge had brought an ever-increasing legal workload to his office.
During the second century, a career path for legal experts was established, and an emperor came to rely heavily upon his consilium, an advisory panel of experienced jurists, in rendering decisions. Severus brought these jurists to even greater prominence. A diligent administrator and conscientious judge, the emperor appreciated legal reasoning and nurtured its development. His reign ushered in the golden age of Roman jurisprudence, and his court employed the talents of the three greatest Roman lawyers: Papinian, Paul and Ulpian.—Michael L. Meckler Ohio State University
The First Black Emperor?
We've established that Severus was from Africa. Was he "black"? (This is a Black History Month diary, after all.) Frustratingly for modern North Americans, the ancient Romans did not share our view of race. Pre-Darwinian in their thinking, they certainly did not categorize inheritable characteristics as 19th century racist theorists did (and as their 21st century counterparts sadly still do.) They recorded physical characteristics sometimes, but not for the convenience of modern US racial categories. Their lines of "us and them" were drawn more firmly around notions of citizenship than race, "civility" (i.e., Hellenization) than ethnicity.
Linguistics suggest that Severus' family was Phoenician in background; the Severan Tondo, a rare surviving painting, suggests he may have been darker complected than his wife, who was of Latin descent.
He might not have been considered black today, but there’s a good chance he would not be considered white, either, in modern North America. And it is no exaggeration to say that many of the authors and figures we consider "Roman" were in fact not simply Latinate, but from a wide mix of peoples and "races": Germanic. Amazigh (Berber). Celtic. Egyptian. Macedonian. Germanic. And more…
An Amazigh Author
Take Lucius Apuleius of Madaurus, author of The Golden Ass and other "Roman" works. He was a follower of the Mystery religion of Isis, one of Egypt's great exports to the Hellenic World. The Golden Ass is a funny, often bawdy, yet deeply spiritual account of one initiate's travels through this religion of love, magic, and transformation. He was also the author of several philosophical treatises. Sometime between 150 and 160, he was accused of practicing malignant magic, entrapping a wealthy older widow into marrying him. His defense, so eloquent that it was preserved, explicitly claimed his own status as a "barbarian" (Berber), and contains this impassioned, unapologetic assertion of his African identity:
About my homeland, it is situated on the border of Numidia and Gaetulia. I am part Numidian and part Gaetulian. I don’t see why I should be ashamed of this…Why did I offer this information? So that from now on, Semelianus, you may be less offended by me, and so that you may extend your good-will and forgiveness, if by some negligence, I did not select your Attic Zarat as my birthplace.
I don't know about you, but when I studied Apuleius' works in school, he was presented to me as "Roman" author, rather than an African one. While not denying that he was part of a wider Latin-speaking community and living in a Roman polity, is it not also significant that this practitioner of an African mystery religion was also proud of his African roots? Again, it’s impossible to say if he would be seen as “black” today. Amazigh people have many different complexions. But he did not self-identify as simply Roman, and it seems only right to acknowledge that.
Saint Valentine and the African Martyrs
And what about poor St. Valentine? I haven't forgotten him. Frankly, we don't know how he might self-identify at all, nor do we have this information for most of the North African Christians who were later revered as saints. Three early Popes (or Bishops of Rome) hailed from Africa. Pope Saint Victor I, the first of these, was born while the writer Apuleius was still alive, and served as Pope from 186 CE until 197. We know frustratingly little of his life (or complexion), but it's interesting to compare the picture of him made by European Christians in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls (at right) with those from modern Catholics who acknowledge at least the possibilities of his Blackness. (Images not reproduced here for copyright reasons.)
Certainly, as Christianity spread through the empire, it attracted many adherents in Africa–of all of its varied ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.
One of the earliest texts written by a Christian woman is from African Carthage–the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, written in part by Perpetua herself, a 22 year-old-mother awaiting martyrdom along with her heavily pregnant servant, Felicitas.
Revered in Christian martyrologies for centuries hence, they were favourite subjects of medieval European martyrologies, often presented as, well, European, as in the image at left, from Croatia.
But there’s a very good chance that Perpetua and Felicitas of Carthage, looked more like this woman on the right, whose portrait is recorded on a mummy portrait from around the time of their martyrdom.
The contrast reminds us that many of the roots of medieval European religion and culture came from Roman Africa, even if medieval Europeans used artistic conventions that made all the early saints appear "white."
Saint Anthony and the Monastic Model
But there are other African saints about whom we know more, much more. Take the Egyptian Saint Anthony, one of the fathers of monasticism. Where would medieval Christendom have been without its ubiquitous monks? Indeed, where would all of Europe have been without the texts those men (and their female counterparts) laboriously preserved and copied? Without the piety and fame of Anthony, who sought out the Egyptian desert, it seems unlikely that such communities would ever have flourished. But the man whose legacy played such a role in European history spoke Coptic, and African language, not a European one.
Around 270 CE (the era of Valentine's martyrdom), Anthony fled into the desert to establish a solitary, ascetic existence that would bring him closer to God. This was nothing new, but the community of men who sought him out and tried to emulate him was. In 305, Anthony re-emerged from his solitary existence to give these men a Rule of order, an attempt to establish guidelines for monastic living. This helped to establish the idea that hermits might live in a sort of community, bound by a common Rule; they were not simply individual holy men but part of a wider community. Significantly modified later by St. Benedict, this communal model for monasticism played a major role in shaping European and world history. But the fact that monasticism is an Egyptian legacy somehow got left out of my grade school books of saints.
Africa is home to many other saints and notable from late Antiquity–many of them Ethiopian. The Ethiopian Church claims to be one of the oldest branches of Christianity, hearkening back to the Book of Acts 8:27:
Then the angel of the Lord said to Philip, Start out and go south to the road that leads down from Jerusalem to Gaza. So he set out and was on his way when he caught sight of an Ethiopian. This man was a eunuch, a high official of the Kandake (Candace) Queen of Ethiopia in charge of all her treasure.
Around 305, the Lebanese-born Egyptian bishop St. Frumentius traveled to Ethiopia, where he successfully began (or re-founded) a Christian Church in that country. Ethiopian Christianity retained strong tied with the eastern Church until the 20th century, and remains a distinctive branch of the Christina family, with its own list of African saints and notables. Medieval Europeans were intrigued by Ethiopia, and conflated tales of its Christian kingdom with stories from travelers to China and India to invent the mythical kingdom of “Prester John," a powerful Christian monarch living somewhere in Africa or Asia.
Saint Moses, Patron of Non-Violence
One of the most famous Ethiopian saints lived in the Romanized world. "Moses the Ethiopian," lived in Egypt between 330 and 405 CE. Ex-slave, violent criminal and gang leader, his life was transform
ed by an encounter with an abbot whose monastery Moses originally intended tor ob. Treated with love and compassion by the man he intended to assault, Moses was overwhelmed with repentance and became a monk himself. He was eventually ordained a priest and founded his own monastic community of 75 men.
Around 405, his monastery was attacked by nomadic criminals; totally committed to peace, St. Moses refused to use any violence, even to defend himself. While most of his brothers fled, Moses and seven others greeted their attackers with open arms and were martyred. For his commitment to pacificism, he is sometimes cited as the patron saint of nonviolent protest. He is more often revered in Eastern Christianity than in the West.
Augustine, Father of the Church
Perhaps you're familiar with St. Augustine of Hippo, also known as Auerelius Augustine, author of The Confessions of St. Augustine and The City of God. He is credited with formulating the doctrine of original sin and asserting one of the earliest clear views of predestination (a position which has made him very important to Protestant theologians as well as Catholic ones). He was also African. Born around 354 in Tagaste (present-day Souk Ahras, Algeria), he studied in Numidia and Carthage before traveling to Rome to better learn rhetoric.
His mother, Monica, was a devoutly Christian woman, but his abusive father was not. She is a saint in her own right, and traditionally for American Christians, is usually portrayed as a (very) white woman, as in the 19th century image, commonly used on prayer cards, at left. (I owned one of these growing up.) Although the ethnicity of his father Patricius is impossible to tell, Monica or Monnica had a traditional Amazigh name, and Tagaste was heavily Amazigh. Although Augustine studied Latin and Greek, and they apparently spoke Latin at home, he retained an 'African" accent for some time which he was at pains to lose later in life. Monica was an important figure in St. Augustine’s life, and played a key role in his eventual version.
But why don’t we think of her like this portrait at right?
Whatever she looked like, Monica’s early pleas that her son convert were little heeded. Augustine had little interest in Christianity, dismissing it as philosophically simplistic and uninteresting. He spent much of his youth learning and teaching rhetoric while enjoying the good life. At one point, he fathered a son. He eventually agreed to his mother's wish that he settle down and marry a respectable woman, but while waiting for his fiancee to reach the age of consent, he took up with another mistress. Around 387, he went through a conversion experience. Thanks to his mother and to St Ambrose of Milan, he became a Christian–and not just any kind of Christian. He put aside thoughts of marriage and resolved to live the celibate life of a monk back in Africa. (His conversion had been in part inspired by reading the life of the Egyptian Saint Anthony.) But his rhetorical and administrative talents were not those that could be easily hidden from the world, and by 390 he had been conscripted into the priesthood. In 396 he was appointed bishop of Hippo (Annaba, in Algeria).
The Intellect of Augustine
From this vantage in Africa, Augustine became famous for his sermons and for his spiritual learning. A paragraph is hardly sufficient to describe his accomplishments and roles. It is important to note that in all of his works, Augustine emphasized inward spirituality over outward conformity ( a key issue in his struggle with the Donatist heresy). It is his definition of a sacrament–"an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace"—that generations of catechism students have learned to dutifully recite. He struggled all his life with sexual temptation, and is responsible for a significant portion of the Church's teaching on sexual sin, as well as its thoughts on the free will of mankind. He made one of the first statements about "just war" in his City of God, saying that wars should be fought only to stop wrong-doing and for the end of peace, and :
… it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars; and this wrong-doing, even though it gave rise to no war, would still be matter of grief to man because it is man's wrong-doing… (Chapter 7) … It is therefore with the desire for peace that wars are waged, even by those who take pleasure in exercising their warlike nature in command and battle. And hence it is obvious that peace is the end sought for by war. (Chapter 12) .
The City of God offered important solace to the inhabitants of the Roman world; in 410,Vandals sacked Rome itself. As their world crumbled around them, Augustine counseled his flock to forgo what he called "City of Man" in favor of the "City of God"–the cultivation of spiritual rather than earthly values. This text proved highly influential in medieval Europe, offering a spiritual alternative to the fractured earthly politics which followed for centuries on the fall of Rome.
Augustine's writings do not all jibe comfortably with modern sensibilities. But he was certainly no fundamentalist in the modern sense, and perhaps one of his greatest contributions to the Western world was his insistence that Christians could and should use the gifts of the intellect—that knowledge gained by pagans was just a useful as knowledge gained by Christians. Without his statements, it is doubtful that the works of classical Greece and Rome could have been so extensively studied and preserved in the West. He did not favour a literal interpretation of Genesis, when it clearly contradicted human observation and reason. (Indeed, he found it embarrassing that Christians would do so.) Rather, he suggested that Genesis was a work concerned with spiritual truths rather than the literal "nature of the skies":
With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.” (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis[AD 408])
The Question of Color
Afrocentric scholars have sometimes been criticized for their rush to claim the "Black-ness" of the past. Yet there is much to be claimed. On the other had, there is no denying that the popular view of Roman history in North America remains deeply Eurocentric. Hollywood's Roman films tend to be quite pale and blue-eyed, and their views of Egypt in almost any period are the same. I love the film Agora, and Rachel Weisz was a terrific Hypatia, but a much darker skinned actress could have been a completely plausible choice. And even outside of popular culture, there’s a problem. "Roman" authors in school texts are routinely denied a discussion of their unique ethnic origins, even when (as in the case of Aupuleius) those origins were clearly of some import to the authors themselves.
Where the Romans were silent on the matter of physical appearance, medieval Europeans filled in with pictures of people who looked just like themselves. We can appreciate the beauty of that medieval art, while recognizing that a blonde-haired, blue-eyed portrait of St. Augustine is about as unrealistic as Sallman's 1941 portrait of redheaded Jesus that hangs in so many American homes.
Since I first wrote this essay in 2007, racism in the United States has only intensified. The election of President Obama has brought the ugliest expressions of white supremacy into mainstream political discourse. Membership in hate groups has risen. Hatred for Muslims, with its not-too-well disguised racist underpinnings, is being whipped up not only by racist groups but by major candidates for the office of President of the United States. It seems obligatory for Republican politicians to speak of non-white Latino peoples in the most dehumanizing and degrading terms, as animals to be fenced out of the country. So much hate in the name of preserving white supremacy. And so often voiced in terms of “our culture,” “Western civilization” or the like. But the whiteness of that culture is a dangerous, damnable fiction, one that erases how much of “Western” intellectual tradition, and how much of the modern American world, was shaped by people of color. Without St. Anthony’s monasticism, there might well be no “Western” culture. Without Augustine of Hippo, the intellectual contribution of non-Christian philosophers might have been shut out of the Christian intellectual tradition entirely. And so on, and so forth.
When I first wrote this essay, I asked, “Does the color of your (Saint) Valentine really matter?” It’s clear it still does. It matters that people of African descent can see themselves in this history, and it matters than people not of African descent can see that too. I hope that on this Valentine’s Day we can spare a bit of love and remembrance for all those whose contributions are too little remembered because of the color of their skin. And also? For those whose contributions are remembered while their identities have been erased. Happy Valentine’s Day, and I hope you have a great Black History Month.