Women used to dominate the beer industry – until the witch accusations started pouring in

What do witches have to do with your favorite beer?

When I pose this question to students in my American literature and culture classes, I receive stunned silence or nervous laughs. The Sanderson sisters didn't chug down bottles of Sam Adams in “Hocus Pocus." But the history of beer points to a not-so-magical legacy of transatlantic slander and gender roles.

Up until the 1500s, brewing was primarily women's work – that is, until a smear campaign accused women brewers of being witches. Much of the iconography we associate with witches today, from the pointy hat to the broom, emerged from their connection to female brewers.

A routine household task

Humans have been drinking beer for almost 7,000 years, and the original brewers were women. From the Vikings to the Egyptians, women brewed beer both for religious ceremonies and to make a practical, calorie-rich beverage for the home.

In fact, the nun Hildegard von Bingen, who lived in modern-day Germany, famously wrote about hops in the 12th century and added the ingredient to her beer recipe.

From the Stone Age to the 1700s, ale – and, later, beer – was a household staple for most families in England and other parts of Europe. The drink was an inexpensive way to consume and preserve grains. For the working class, beer provided an important source of nutrients, full of carbohydrates and proteins. Because the beverage was such a common part of the average person's diet, fermenting was, for many women, one of their normal household tasks.

Some enterprising women took this household skill to the marketplace and began selling beer. Widows or unmarried women used their fermentation prowess to earn some extra money, while married women partnered with their husbands to run their beer business.

Exiling women from the industry

So if you traveled back in time to the Middle Ages or the Renaissance and went to a market in England, you'd probably see an oddly familiar sight: women wearing tall, pointy hats. In many instances, they'd be standing in front of big cauldrons.

But these women were no witches; they were brewers.

A witch, hunched over and wearing a tall, pointy hat, casts a spell.

A 1916 illustration of the witch from the German children's fairy tale 'Hansel and Gretel.'

GraphicaArtis via Getty Images

They wore the tall, pointy hats so that their customers could see them in the crowded marketplace. They transported their brew in cauldrons. And those who sold their beer out of stores had cats not as demon familiars, but to keep mice away from the grain.

Just as women were establishing their foothold in the beer markets of England, Ireland and the rest of Europe, the Inquisition began. The fundamentalist religious movement, which originated in the early 16th century, preached stricter gender norms and condemned witchcraft.

Male brewers saw an opportunity. To reduce their competition in the beer trade, these men accused female brewers of being witches and using their cauldrons to brew up magic potions instead of booze.

Unfortunately, the rumors took hold.

Over time, it became more dangerous for women to practice brewing and sell beer because they could be misidentified as witches. At the time, being accused of witchcraft wasn't just a social faux pas; it could result in prosecution or a death sentence. Women accused of witchcraft were often ostracized in their communities, imprisoned or even killed.

Some men didn't really believe that the women brewers were witches. However, many did believe that women shouldn't be spending their time making beer. The process took time and dedication: hours to prepare the ale, sweep the floors clean and lift heavy bundles of rye and grain. If women couldn't brew ale, they would have significantly more time at home to raise their children. In the 1500s some towns, such as Chester, England, actually made it illegal for most women to sell beer, worried that young alewives would grow up into old spinsters.

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Men still run the show

The iconography of witches with their pointy hats and cauldrons has endured, as has men's domination of the beer industry: The top 10 beer companies in the world are headed by male CEOs and have mostly male board members.

Major beer companies have tended to portray beer as a drink for men. Some scholars have even gone as far as calling beer ads “manuals on masculinity."

Three witches stand around a cauldron.

Tools for brewing beer – like the cauldron – became part of the popular iconography associated with witches.

Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images via Getty Images

This gender bias seems to persist in smaller craft breweries as well. A study at Stanford University found that while 17% of craft beer breweries have one female CEO, only 4% of these businesses employ a female brewmaster – the expert supervisor who oversees the brewing process.

It doesn't have to be this way. For much of history, it wasn't.The Conversation

Laken Brooks, Doctoral Student of English, University of Florida

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How Bruce Springsteen – and the left – can reclaim and cultivate a vocabulary of patriotism

The American flag has become a symbol of right-wing politics. Democrats can insist otherwise, but honest observers will concede that when they see a house, vehicle, or wardrobe adorned with the stars and stripes, it probably belongs to an American whose conception of patriotism allows everyone to have easy access to a firearm arsenal, but medicine to remain a high-priced luxury item.

The success of the right wing in their co-optation of patriotic language and symbols reached its absurd zenith on Jan. 6 when a mob of domestic terrorists proudly waved the flag and chanted, "USA!" before assaulting police officers and attempting to murder elected officials in their aspiration to replace American democracy with a dynastic dictatorship.

Beyond the ignorance of the Trump insurrectionists, it is essential for the left to evaluate how the far right monopolized patriotism and the hallmarks of Americana without much difficulty. The left has always demonstrated a healthy aversion to displays of national pride. Understanding the manipulative power of the flag, and that maudlin tributes to "God and country" typically shadow the ongoing injustices that take place under their invocation, progressives have largely neglected to offer a counterargument to operationally anti-American pundits and politicians who personify the words of Jewish activist and journalist James Wise, often misattributed to Sinclar Lewis: "If fascism comes to America . . . it will probably be wrapped up in the American flag and heralded as a plea for liberty."

Despite a justifiable reticence surrounding pious displays of American pride, the left has made a critical error by not forcefully confronting the right's self-serving, deceitful, and hateful brand of chauvinism. Most Americans – left, right, and apolitical – desire to feel some affection toward their country, especially considering that people have the tendency to associate their own community with their country, distilling the abstract "America" into the concrete hometown of their youth.

The late philosopher Richard Rorty brilliantly describes the contradictions of patriotism, and the self-inflicted wound of the left in refusing to cultivate a vocabulary of patriotism, in his prescient collection of lectures, "Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America." Rorty begins with the assertion that "National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement."

"Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself," Rorty argues, "need to remind their country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of." The right wing is clearly childlike and delusional in its familiar refrain that any denunciation of American policy or history is tantamount to treason, but Rorty insists that by only associating patriotism with atrocity and oppression, the left disarms itself in debates about the identity of the country, and how best to advance a national construct that makes words like "liberty and justice for all" actionable and real. Rorty devotes most of his search for edifying patriotism to the beautiful and magisterial poetry of Walt Whitman, wisely celebrating the American bard's tributes to democracy, paeans to the working class, and lyrical advancement of the idea that the "password primeval" of America is in the voices of the "diseased, despairing, those whose rights others are down upon."

In democratic practice, Martin Luther King famously argued that the civil rights movement was an effort to cash the "promissory note" of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. When I asked Jesse Jackson, who was one of King's aides, about the common sight of American flags at voting rights marches and Black freedom rallies in the 1960s, he said, "We used the flag and the cross for equality and justice. We made a convincing case that we represented a true form of patriotism because we had the Constitution on our side."

The poetry of Whitman, and the leadership of King and Jackson offer insight into the distinction that the British poet and pamphleteer, Samuel Johnson, made in his essay on patriotism. Famous for the warning, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel," Johnson wasn't condemning natural feelings of affection for one's country, but in his time and place, scoundrels like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton, who are "self-professed patriots," more concerned with their own power and profit than any abiding sense of national prosperity or unity. "True patriotism," Johnson declared, is not only possible, but important.

In recent years, as Trump invoked the flag to encourage hostility toward Black people, immigrants, and Muslims, and actually hugged and kissed the flag in a bizarre psychosexual display at a rally, more thoughtful and compassionate cultural figures have attempted to express "true patriotism" in rebuttal to "self-professed patriotism."

No musician has a more all-American image than Bruce Springsteen. Committed to progressive causes since the late 1970s, he has consistently used his music to spotlight injustice, and as he puts it with no small measure of modesty, "measure the distance between the American reality and ideal." The widespread misinterpretation of "Born in the USA," for which he was partially responsible, is infamous, but the song itself is one of the most powerful explorations of an unjust war and societal neglect of working class veterans.

In the past few months, Springsteen has made a concerted effort to communicate with his own predominantly white, Baby Boomer audience, seemingly with the awareness that many of his fans voted for Trump. First, there was a grievously ill-advised Super Bowl commercial for Jeep in which the rock and roll legend drives around a small town in Kansas in search of a chapel located at the geographic middle of the continental United States. While wearing a cowboy hat and impersonating Clint Eastwood, Springsteen suggests that Americans of diametrically opposed ideologies "find the middle." He offers no indication of how any Americans, irrespective of political persuasion, can find unity with the Trump cult that has not only rejected the possibility of compromise, but also empirical reality.

Even more bothersome in terms of content is the replication of the imagery of Christian nationalism that is central to the far right fascist movement. Halfway into the Jeep ad, the camera zooms in on a cross hanging over a red, white, and blue map of the United States. Where this leaves Jews, Muslims, atheists and others who do not identify patriotism with Christianity is out of the realm of discussion. One should not expect too much from a multinational corporation making a major contribution to the climate crisis. It is disappointing at this late stage of his career, that Springsteen would shill for big business, breaking a record of integrity that dates back to when he rejected Chrysler's multimillion dollar offer of appear in one of their ads in the 1980s.

Springsteen's investment in his own heroic myth seems to motivate his other recent attempt at rescuing patriotism from the anti-intellectual and anti-democratic sewer of right wing outrage. Together with his friend, former president Barack Obama, he has launched a podcast, "Renegades: Born in the USA." The two eloquent speakers explore American identity, race, and masculinity throughout the eight episodes of the series, but they do so in constant reference to themselves. They make a fine argument for social liberalism, and as the title would suggest, attempt to identify patriotism with diversity, acceptance of outsiders, and hospitality for those who are unconventional, but the larger message is lost in their unabashed egomania.

During the first episode, Springsteen declares "My Hometown," his 1985 hit about communal conflict and loyalty, a "great song," and in the second episode, speaks at length about the "power of the idealism of the E Street Band." Not to let his friend outdo him, Obama, without any hesitation, offers as conclusion to part one, "People often ask me, 'What is your favorite speech'?" Then, proceeds to name one of his own speeches, and recite it verbatim.

The natural question in response to such self-aggrandizement is "why?" Why is a former president squandering his authority and influence on a meandering podcast about his youth, and in the words of the Springsteen song, "boring stories of glory days?"

It would appear that Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama are coequal partners in the icon business. Believing that they can use their iconography to the advantage of liberalism, they are attempting to present their own stories as patriotic myths. As the banality of the podcast would illustrate, it is a poor political project; doomed to fail with anyone who does not already adore both the former president and rock and roll legend.

The mission to become living and breathing icons is particularly fraught in an age of iconoclasm. In San Francisco, Chicago, and cities across the country there are various campaigns to rename schools and public buildings currently christened to honor everyone from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln. There is an opposition to the traditional icons of patriotism emanating out of a new focus on the injustices that they either ordered or observed without intervention. Indiscriminate slaughter of sacred cows also seems like poor politics, destined to alienate even those sympathetic with reinterpretations of American history. The campaign to, for example, remove a statue of Abraham Lincoln from a Chicago city park not only offers a narrow and boringly pious vision of history, but also further surrenders patriotism to the far right. If the left announces, "We don't want Lincoln," intentionally or not, they gift the author of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the president who saved the Union, to right wing demagogues.

Howard Zinn, the brilliant historian and activist, once rebuffed a question about whether his classic exploration of U.S. history through popular movements, "A People's History of the United States," would influence young students to dislike their own country, and deprive them of patriotic heroes who could inspire them to strive to improve the conditions of their country. Zinn's response offers instruction to those who, like Rorty, are concerned about the future of critical patriotism on the left.

We should be honest with young people; we should not deceive them. We should be honest about the history of our country. And we should be not only taking down the traditional heroes like Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, but we should be giving young people an alternate set of heroes. Instead of Theodore Roosevelt, tell them about Mark Twain. Mark Twain — well, Mark Twain, everybody learns about as the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but when we go to school, we don't learn about Mark Twain as the vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League. We aren't told that Mark Twain denounced Theodore Roosevelt for approving this massacre in the Philippines. No.
We want to give young people ideal figures like Helen Keller. And I remember learning about Helen Keller. Everybody learns about Helen Keller, you know, a disabled person who overcame her handicaps and became famous. But people don't learn in school . . . that Helen Keller was a socialist. She was a labor organizer. She refused to cross a picket line that was picketing a theater showing a play about her.
And so, there are these alternate heroes in American history. There's Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses. There are the heroes of the civil rights movement. There are a lot of people who are obscure, who are not known. We have a young hero who was sitting on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to leave the front of the bus. And that was before Rosa Parks. I mean, Rosa Parks is justifiably famous for refusing to leave her seat, and she got arrested, and that was the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and really the beginning of a great movement in the South. But this 15-year-old girl did it first. And so, we have a lot of — we are trying to bring a lot of these obscure people back into the forefront of our attention and inspire young people to say, "This is the way to live."

The crucial insight that Zinn offers is that patriotism should spotlight virtuous behavior in service to justice within a shared community. Richard Rorty interprets Whitman according to that definition, and there are living artists who have employed their creativity in the discovery of ways to celebrate what is unique and good about America, without ignoring or lying about what is unjust and oppressive.

Like Zinn, the poet Rita Dove locates patriotic profundity in the life of Rosa Parks. Her 1999 collection of poems, "On the Bus with Rosa Parks," makes the heroic activism of Parks central to American life. The bus not only rides through Montgomery, but all of American history, offering an invitation to anyone who would like to help push the passenger vehicle closer toward freedom, justice, and equality.

"Pull the cord a stop too soon," Dove lyricizes, "And you'll find yourself walking a gauntlet of stares." The immediate impression is that she is describing the inhospitable response, possibly even violent, a Black American will receive in the "wrong" neighborhood, but the perspective soon widens to include the assassination of advocates for civil rights, and how those deaths continue to haunt American history: "Dallas playing its mistake over and over/ until even that sad reel won't stay stuck – there's still / Bobby and Malcolm and Memphis / at every corner the same / scorched brick, darkened windows."

Dove advances an idea of patriotism that demands movement and insists upon forward progress. In her poem, "American Smooth," she not only pays tribute to the multicultural tapestry of American music, but also compares its sociopolitical life to a couple on the dance floor, finding its rhythm, continuing to dance to the sounds that surround them. The only error, Dove seems to warn, is to stop.

As she herself implies with reference to the Kennedy brothers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, tragedies and atrocities often leave mourners no choice but to stop, and in their pause, reflect on the gravity of the loss.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there were many tributes to the victims, especially the firefighters and first responders who risked their own safety to save the lives of strangers. Martin Espada offers one of the most beautiful memorials of Sept. 11 in his poem, "Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100."

It is dedicated to the 43 members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees 100 who died while working at the Windows of the World restaurant in the World Trade Center. Espada describes the wide range of countries where these workers – the dishwashers, the cook, the busboy – travelled from to make their home in America. With homage to Whitman's poem, "I Hear America Singing," he praises the majestic and soulful music of their labor, their voices, and their harmonious presence.

Espada ends the poem with the imagery of war – "from Manhattan and Kabul" – and provides a dark, but profound insight into the separation between power and the people who are so often the victims of those who exercise it.

Patriotism, like any feeling of affection, is only as useful as its ability to assist in the alleviation of human suffering, and the flourishing of human potential. In that respect, it is a localized iteration of compassion and justice, calling upon the best traditions of a particular country.

A pandemic should have activated this form of patriotism throughout the United States, but the scoundrels most eager to wave the flag have little interest in helping the people who live underneath it.

An entire set of policies – from voting rights to universal health care – should emerge out of the patriotic instinct. Otherwise, all the red, white, and blue gestures are nothing more than symbolism that is both empty and obfuscating. As John Prine sang in 1971 with eternal relevance:

Well, I got my window shield so filled
With flags I couldn't see.
So, I ran the car upside a curb
And right into a tree.
By the time they got a doctor down
I was already dead.
And I'll never understand why the man
Standing in the Pearly Gates said...
"Your flag decal won't get you
Into Heaven…"

The GOP embrace of the new culture war isn't fooling anyone

On Monday, US Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the Republican Party's most aggressive culture warrior, called for an investigation into "cancel culture."

Welcome back to the culture wars.

We've been here before.

First, there was McCarthyism. Ostensibly a Cold War campaign against fascism and communism, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) dug deeply into university campuses and media companies, ferreting out "subversive" ideas like nuclear non-proliferation, racial equality, and homosexual rights.

Alternative media—Regnery Press, The Manion Forum, The National Review, and 700 Club—supported the expansion of the right. Repudiating liberalism in both parties, by the 1970s these conservative outlets were actively resisting the "cultural excesses" of the 1960s: free speech, desegregation, free love, and freedom from religion.

Jim Jordan's initiative not only substitutes rhetoric for policy. It substitutes freedom from ideas for freedom of thought.

Conservatives at the time named this policy agenda "family values." By 1991, however, sociologist James Davison Hunter had renamed it a "culture war." Otherwise abstract issues like family, religion, patriotism and freedom were now "controversies that seem to have a life of their own," dividing Americans into opposing political camps.

By 1992, the culture wars strategy took firm root in the GOP as right-wing populists, under the leadership of Patrick Buchanan, repudiated party moderates. While Buchanan failed in his bid for the GOP nomination, at the convention that summer he urged a return to Reaganism when "they were proud to be Americans again."

"The central organizing project of this republic is freedom," Buchanan thundered, excoriating gay rights, abortion rights, and secular public education. "My friends," he continued, "we must take back our culture and take back our country."

But is the crackdown that Jordan and the Trumpist majority of the GOP are calling for—eliminating diversity initiatives on campus and hate speech on the internet as if they were indoctrination—simply another chapter in the story of the same culture war?


To be sure, conservatives always sought to protect their rights at the expense of others. The "right" to be free from homosexuality at school and in public jobs required censoring curriculum as well as policies like the 1978 Briggs initiative that purged LGBT teachers from public schools, and the 1993 "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" compromise forced on Bill Clinton that allowed queer people to serve secretly in the military.

But Jordan's initiative not only substitutes culture-war rhetoric for actual policy. It substitutes freedom from ideas for freedom of thought. While conservatives are up in arms about Amazon's refusal to sell books that make false or conspiratorial claims, Trumpists are engaged in the more dangerous task of purging public libraries of LGBTQ books, suppressing reports on climate change, and ending diversity training.

Similarly, conservatives recognize that creating a parallel social media platform is not a sufficient antidote to having their speech curbed on Twitter and Facebook. Unlike television, radio, and mailings, social media built for conservatives will not be seen by, or capture the imaginations of, independent and uncommitted readers and viewers.

By contrast, in the 1990s, Republicans like Newt Gingrich offered a concrete map for waging a culture war. Designed to mirror the Bill of Rights, the 10-point "Contract with America" offered voters in 1994 an explicit program of tax benefits, welfare cuts, and a strengthened military that aligned with right-wing conservative objectives.

Today's Republicans have no policies. They have hot takes, irony, and a vague antipathy to "wokeness." If Jordan calls for investigations of non-criminal activity, Ben Shapiro bides his time with mockery. On February 26, in response to the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolchildren, he tweeted: "Time to unleash the power of hashtag."

Time will tell whether this was a winning formula, but initial signs suggest fake culture wars won't work in 2022. Yes, Donald Trump won the annual straw poll at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference with 55 percent. But since CPAC is Trump country, shouldn't he have won overwhelmingly? The answer is yes.

The GOP's increasing embrace of this new culture war isn't fooling anyone.

Much less conservatives.

The lie critics of 'cancel culture' want you to believe

In discussing the truth about "cancel culture," I'm going to ask you to act for a moment like a journalist. Journalists are concerned, or should be concerned, with gathering relevant facts, crafting stories using relevant facts, clarifying ambiguities and identifying as much as possible who is doing what to whom, when, where, why and how. As applied to "cancel culture," this means who is using the term, in what context are they using it, why are they using it, and whom are they applying it to.

When you look at "cancel culture" from the point of view of a journalist, you can see that the people most likely to use "cancel culture" are most likely critical of the maddeningly muddled liberalization of American society in which people historically on the margins of respectability and power are slowly taking their equally entitled place at their center. Most critics are conservative. Some are liberal in that they worry about freedoms lost as freedoms are won. Others are merely and transparently fascist.

The context in which critics use "cancel culture" is naturally related to language. I say "naturally," because the words we use to engage the political reality we all inhabit is naturally as important as the reality itself. Indeed, the words we use can create their own fictional reality, one that ends up competing with, or even replacing, political reality. Because of the link between language and power, forces of liberalization are naturally interested in reshaping the language we all use in the interest of expanding the rights, liberties and blessings of the franchise. Forces against liberalization are naturally resistant to tampering with the language et al. And as these polar forces collide, there might arise legitimate constitutional questions of freedoms and rights.

But this binary I have established—advocates for and critics against the reshaping of the language that we use in order to engage the reality we inhabit—is mostly false. It's distorting, because it suggests an equal moral footing. Fact is, critics of "cancel culture" are not being honest with you. Advocates are not trying to cancel anyone. They are trying to change the political culture for the purpose of improving as many lives as possible. Critics understand that. That's why they invented a term of art in order to malign advocates—"cancel culture" is an inchoate threat we must face before it's too late. Critics of "cancel culture" are doing the same thing critics of liberalism have done since forever. While liberals complain about problems, critics complain about liberals. And they go to great lengths to get the liberals to shut the hell up.

While "cancel culture" is a fiction invented by critics of liberalization for the purpose of attacking liberals, there is such a thing as cancel culture. We just don't call it that, because real cancel culture has plagued human relations since the dawn of human history—it's when the politically powerful stomp the politically weak. Maltreatment on such a vast and historical scale is so normal, pervasive and ubiquitous that it's almost entirely invisible to those of us lucky enough to have been born on the giving end of it. Those of us unlucky enough to have been born on the receiving end of it, however, can see real cancel culture quite clearly. Again, the difference should be a familiar one. Those with the power to name, name. Those without the power to name, don't name. Those with the power call it "cancel culture." Those without the power sit in silence.

Power is, in fact, how you tell the difference between cancel culture and "cancel culture." It's the best way, to my way of thinking, to make sense of stuff that just doesn't make sense. For instance, the Times reported the story of a Black student at Smith College who claimed being targeted for discrimination by the school's white staffers. The claim wasn't true, turns out, but Smith College's president continued to take the student's side for reasons related to systemic racism. Critics of "cancel culture" howled. This was proof of wokeness run amok! Stop it before it's too late!

This wasn't "cancel culture," though. It was real cancel culture. A privileged Black student at one of the elite institutions of higher education in the United States chose for her own bad reasons to stomp some white working-class stiffs with the full faith and approval of her elite institution, an injustice as old as the history of the country. The problem for critics of "cancel culture" was not, however, the abuse of power. It was not that Smith College took the side of a student in abusing her power. It was the abuse of power by a Black person who isn't supposed to have any power to abuse.

Critics of "cancel culture" would rather not talk about the old hierarchies of power, however, because talking about the old hierarchies of power makes things that don't make sense make sense. The question is almost never about language and freedom of speech. The question is almost always about who is doing what to whom, when, where, why and how. Critics prefer we debate unclear and unresolvable abstractions. But you can free yourself from propaganda by acting, for a moment, as a journalist should.

How Octavia Butler’s visions of the future have transformed a generation of readers

The visionary Black science-fiction writer Octavia Butler died 15 years ago on February 24, 2006, but her influence and readership has only continued to grow since then. In September, Butler's novel "Parable of the Sower" became her first to reach the New York Times best-seller list. We speak with adrienne maree brown, a writer and Octavia Butler scholar, who says Butler had a remarkable talent for universalizing Black stories. "She wrote about Black women and about Black feminism, about Black futures, but she wrote in a way that appealed to all human beings," says Brown.


MY GOODMAN: To talk more about Octavia Butler's legacy, we're joined by the writer and activist adrienne maree brown. She and the musician Toshi Reagon co-host Octavia's Parables, a podcast that dives deeply into Octavia Butler's books Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. adrienne maree brown is also co-editor of the book Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. She's joining us from Detroit.

It's great to have you with us, adrienne. In fact, the last time we had you on, we were talking about Octavia. If you can just briefly talk about her biography and then her significance in the world of literature, but also this visionary look at what's happening today?

adrienne maree brown: Yes. Well, thanks for the opportunity to share. I love speaking about Octavia. I'll talk about her every day if I can.

She gave us 12 novels and a collection of short stories. And she took us, as she took herself, from California. She drove across country to get her story for Kindred. She took herself north to Seattle. And one of the most famous stories, that we just heard about, The Parables, is her protagonist character making her way north.

And as Octavia learned and as she questioned and as she wondered how were humans going to find a way to survive on this planet, she asked those questions and brought them into the text. And in her text, we see all the ways that she was trying to answer those questions, trying to trouble the waters, trying to give us nothing easy, but something super compelling to look forward to. So, the work that she did, Walidah Imarisha and I, when we did Octavia's Brood, Walidah called it "visionary fiction," to look ahead at the future and then write ourselves in. And that's what Octavia was doing with all of her work.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about her life, what led her to write. We've heard some of her describing that herself.

adrienne maree brown: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And the whole genre of Afrofuturism, what that means?

adrienne maree brown: Yeah. So, she talks about this, that when she was, I think, 9, 10 years old, she saw The Devil Girl from Mars, and she said, "I could write something better than that." And so she started to write things. She started to write her own short stories, her own novels.

And she had the idea for the Patternist series when she was quite young, and kept writing it, kept writing it. It ended up being her first novel. She wrote the series backwards. So, if you read the stories — I always love knowing that, that when you read The Patternmaster, that was the first one, but then she wrote backwards to find out the source of that story, how we would get there.

But she was a worker, so she was a laborer. She was always working. And her writing process would be waking up at 3:00 in the morning, because she needed to do it. She had what she called "positive obsession," a positive obsession with moving these stories out.

And I think it would be remiss of me not to say that, just like many of us, she was looking at the world around her and feeling terrified and feeling like, "How are we going to change this? What happens if this goes on?" And it led her to write things that ended up feeling very prophetic. You know, in the Parables, there's a president who runs for office on the slogan "Make America great." And there's a way that she took what was happening around her, what she saw as a very shy, introverted, powerful Black woman — with a super sexy underbite — she was looking at the world around her and figuring out, like, "How do I think about community? How do I think about organizing? How do I think about change?" And so, that's how she did it in her lifetime. She wrote it onto these pages for us.

Afrofuturism, I will say, is a thrilling — to me, a thrilling arena. And now there's African futurism. There's Black speculative fiction. There's all these arenas where, basically, Black people and people of African lineage are saying, "We were almost erased from the lineage. Right? People wanted to erase us and have us just be labor. We're writing ourselves back in. We're writing ourselves back in. We're creating stories that are rooted in African heritage and that articulate an African future." So, it's an exciting place. It's an exciting arc to be inside of as a creator.

AMY GOODMAN: She is also seen, obviously, as a deeply feminist writer. How are women, especially Black women, represented in her work? And how do they grapple with the real-world power structures? I mean, even the publishing world, you have this example of, in 1987, the publisher still insisted on putting two white women on the jacket of her novel Dawn, whose main character is Black.

adrienne maree brown: Yes. I mean, so much has changed there because of the work of Octavia, because of the work of Nnedi Okorafor, because of the work of Tananarive Due.

But I think one of the things that was so powerful to me when I first picked up Octavia is that she wrote these strong Black feminine characters, these protagonists, who now you might look back and see the nonbinary, see the queerness, see other things in them, but at the time, she was writing these characters, and it was like, "Oh, there's young Black women, and they're leading."

And what happened over and over again in the stories, and you see this over and over again, is that people doubted their capacity not only to lead, but to be of use in any way. And then, her characters, rather than pushing, rather than fighting, they would turn inward. They would gather themselves and get aligned with what they thought. So, in the Parables, it's the Earthseed belief system. They would get aligned and be like, "I have a greater destiny than your oppression. And my destiny will take me beyond anything that your oppression can hold me from."

And then, over and over again, we watch those characters follow that path of destiny and take themselves and anyone who wants to come with them beyond, which I also think is important, because she wrote about Black women and about Black feminism, about Black futures, but she wrote in a way that appealed to all human beings. And I think that that, to me, is one of the essences of feminism. It's like, we're not saying we're better than or beyond. We're saying we are right here, equal to anyone else and able to lead as much as anyone else. So, she understood that. She wrote it beautifully.

AMY GOODMAN: adrienne maree brown, we want to thank you for being with us, co-host of the podcast Octavia's Parables — we will link to your podcast — and also co-editor of the book Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements.

On Wednesday, Symphony Space in New York will present an all-star celebration of Octavia Butler to mark the 15th anniversary of her death, and that will be virtually. You can check it out online.

Historian: We shouldn't defend democracy 'with half-truths about the past'

We often learn most from people who don't share our worldviews. German Carl Schmitt, a reactionary critic of democracy, provides uncanny insight into the uncivil war of opinion after the 2020 election. Constitutional democracies, Schmitt argues, seek a foundation in legality, that is rule by law, but belief in a state's legitimacy depends on a sense of tradition embodied in myths and symbols.

On January 6 insurrectionists convinced by the lie of voter fraud legitimated breaking the law because they felt that they were, like the liberty-loving Minutemen of Concord and Lexington, protecting the country. The same invocation of the spirit of 1776 animated the Confederacy, which claimed to protect "liberty" while in fact legitimating slavery. After the Union victory, paramilitary white supremacists imagined themselves as Minutemen redeeming the South from a threat to its way of life.

The response of those rightly horrified by the events of January 6 is more complicated. Understanding the threat to democracy by a lawless attack on the symbolic citadel of "the people," they mistakenly conflate rule by law with democracy and rely on myths about the nation's founding after the Revolutionary War and its second founding after the Civil War. For instance, historian Jon Meacham, a frequent media commentator, claims that "the framers intended America's to be a popular, not a legislative, government. The voters acting through the electoral process, not lawmakers in a parliamentary setting, were to determine the occupancy of the presidency." In fact, nowhere does the Constitution mention a role for votes by the people. Art II, sec 1, 2 of the Constitution leaves it up to each state to decide how to determine electors. "Each State shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature, thereof may direct, a Number of Electors."

And yet cries of "un-American" arise when the Arizona state legislature undemocratically proposes a law allowing it to ignore people's votes and appoint electors in a manner perfectly consistent with the Constitution. Similarly, pundits equate unlawful acts of the insurrectionists on January 6 with ones by Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, although their challenges to state certifications followed procedures created by an 1887 law still in force. Rather than chauvinistic piety about rule by law, we need to address undemocratic actions enabled by our Constitution and our legal system.

133 years ago constitutional scholar John Burgess criticized the 1887 law for making our flawed system of electing a president worse and therefore producing "a congestion of the body politic until nothing but blood-letting can relieve it." [See more here.] Burgess was prophetic. But he also points to the nation's contradictory past. Like many in the North, as well as the South, he denounced African American suffrage. Nonetheless, he did not have to worry about the Fifteenth Amendment, because it proved ineffectual in protecting Black voters. It is prohibitive, not affirmative. In forbidding states from denying suffrage on the basis of race, it allows other means for suppressing African American and immigrant voters. [See more here.] Unfortunately, partial accounts about the revolutionary change brought about by the constitutional amendments during the nation's second founding distract from the country's need to have an amendment that eliminates legal forms of suppression by affirmatively conferring the right to vote on all citizens eighteen years and older.

The major beneficiary of those partial accounts has been Ulysses S. Grant. Like President Biden, Grant faced the almost insurmountable task of reuniting the country while guaranteeing racial justice. Indeed, commentators, politicians, and media historians, urge Biden to combat domestic terrorists as "Ulysses the Silent" attacked the Ku Klux Klan. Introducing Merrick Garland as his nominee for attorney general, Biden himself praised the Grant administration for creating the Justice Department in 1870 in order to destroy the Klan. What actually happened is a warning, not a model.

Grant did invoke the April 20, 1871, KKK Act to break the back of the Klan temporarily in South Carolina, where his attorney general tried those arrested in federal courts. But success was limited. White supremacists thrived in other states. In South Carolina, most of the Klan's leaders escaped before trial. Furthermore, in the middle of the trials Grant fired his attorney general, most likely pressured by railroad tycoons upset with actions against monopolies. The new attorney general eventually stopped the trials. When ringleaders of the bloody racist massacre in Colfax, Louisiana, on Easter Sunday 1873 appealed to the Supreme Court, they were acquitted in a ruling that paved the way for undermining federal legislation against domestic terrorism. That decision was written by a Chief Justice appointed by Grant and joined by his other appointees. Even worse, in a gesture of national unity, Grant pardoned all Klansmen still in federal prison. [See more here.]

Presidential pardons are part of the Constitution, which also does not forbid a president from pressuring his attorney general. Grant replaced his last of numerous attorney generals the final year of his term during a shuffle in the cabinet when Secretary of War William Belknap was caught selling lucrative positions at Indian trading posts for a profit. Warned of his impending impeachment, Belknap ran to the White House where his friend Grant, without questions, accepted his resignation. The Senate tried Belknap anyway, but he was acquitted because 23 senators, who deemed him guilty, claimed the Senate had no jurisdiction over a private citizen. When, as a citizen, Belknap was indicted in the District of Columbia, Grant intervened and instructed his new attorney general to drop charges, which he did.

Myths about the founders and President Grant cannot restore legitimacy to a democracy in the wake of a second presidential impeachment and acquittal and facing competing demands to unify the country, rebuild the economy, address racial injustice, restore confidence in the presidency and Justice Department, deal with a conservative Supreme Court, and manage a pandemic.

Brook Thomas is Chancellor's Professor Emeritus of English and the Center for Law, Society, and Culture, UC Irvine. His specialty is 19th-century law and literature in the US. He has published six single-authored books including the prize-winning The Literature Of Reconstruction: Not In Plain Black And White (2017), and a case book on Plessy v. Ferguson. A recent podcast on the accuracy and significance of the numerous recent references to Reconstruction in the media and on the floor of Congress is at:

CNN's 'Lincoln' docuseries is a fascinating treasure trove for fans of the best Republican president

There is something incredibly charming about seeing talk show host Conan O'Brien deconstruct the genius of Abraham Lincoln — not Lincoln the president, but Lincoln the self-deprecating comedian.

This is one of the myriad pleasures derived from watching CNN's new six-part miniseries "Lincoln: Divided We Stand," which aired its first episode on Valentine's Day. It is a cliché to point out that Lincoln was one of America's greatest presidents, if not the greatest. He freed enslaved people, won the Civil War and was ahead of his time on economic issues. Yet apart from being a great president, Lincoln was also a fascinating man. It is this aspect of America's 16th president that is captivatingly brought to the fore in the documentary, which is narrated by "This Is Us" and "Black Panther" star Sterling K. Brown.

There are so many intriguing nuggets of information to choose from here. We can start with how the series recalls the cruel hardships of Lincoln's childhood. Lesser historians like to romanticize America's pioneer days, but as a young Lincoln's family moves from the hinterlands of Kentucky to those of Indiana, he isn't exactly experiencing the bucolic idyll concocted by countless dreadfully trite early Disney movies. Lincoln lives in abject poverty and must work to survive from a very young age; his beloved mother dies when he is only nine; his emotionally distant father temporarily abandons him with his older sister (who also later dies) so that he can find a wife in a nearby town; and, when Lincoln teaches himself to read and becomes fascinated with knowledge, his father physically abuses him because he wants his son to be a farmer.

That last detail was the one that struck me the most, perhaps because it is undervalued when people think about the Great Emancipator. Lincoln was an autodidact and his thirst for knowledge, and obvious joy in being able to learn more about the world around him, is evident both in this documentary and to anyone who has read his early speeches and poems. He took considerable pains, figuratively and literally, to find books, newspapers and virtually anything else he could get his hands on to improve his education. His mind was skeptical and had a knack for separating truth from baloney; it also had an artistic and intellectual flair, loving eloquent prose and probing ideas. This trait may even explain why Lincoln thrust himself into politics at an early age, clearly savoring the give-and-take of the Second Party System that saw Lincoln align himself with the Whig Party (the more "liberal" party by modern standards, although the term must be applied somewhat anachronistically here) with the Democratic Party, which at that time was dominated by Andrew Jackson.

These qualities sharpened Lincoln's mind and made him into the legendary wit whose comedy chops were so deft that Coco seems genuinely in awe of them nearly two centuries later. It brings to mind the famous line from "Game of Thrones" character Tyrion Lannister, "A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge." Hearing O'Brien regale audiences with some of Lincoln's most legendary sharp comedy moments (I dare not spoil them here) is a great joy of this documentary, especially since Lincoln's endearing ability to poke fun at himself is reminiscent of O'Brien's own sense of humor. (I'll just say it: My hunch is that Lincoln would have been on Team Coco.)

Yet the documentary is also strong because, when necessary, it takes Lincoln off of his pedestal. While simplistic historians tend to view Lincoln as a god-like man who with a sweep of his hand freed enslaved people, the reality is far more complicated. To its credit, the miniseries goes into detail about the horrors of slavery: The families ripped apart, the physical and psychological anguishes inflicted on its victims, the fact that America's economy depended on the degradation and subjugation of millions of people. There were men and women in Lincoln's time who wanted to abolish slavery altogether and accept African Americans as equals — but Lincoln was not one of them. He opposed slavery on principle, to be sure, but was willing to accept its existence in states where it already existed as long as it didn't expand beyond them. He believed African Americans should eventually be freed, but as the documentary astutely observes, thought they should be sent back to Africa, even though for most of them America was the only home they had ever known.

Lincoln was, undeniably, a racist. He made it clear, during a key moment in his famous debates with Democratic Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois, that he did not view African Americans as equal to whites. He was not an abolitionist and was only a friend to racially marginalized groups up to a point. He took political risks in his early years when advocating against slavery, but there were others who took even greater ones. And while Lincoln suffered intense hardships as a child, the documentary makes it clear, they were nothing compared to the living hell endured by American slaves.

Only the first three of the six episodes were given to Salon for review, and therefore is left off at the Battle of Fort Sumter in 1861 and the start of the Civil War. I have no idea whether the series will do justice to Lincoln's visionary leadership during the Civil War, or the events that gave birth to the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, or how he passed economically progressive measures like the Homestead Act, the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act and the Pacific Railways Acts. It touches on Lincoln's lifelong struggle with depression and other mental health issues; these were defining aspects of the man's life, and if the miniseries continues to mine that ore, it will do a great public service both for our understanding of Lincoln and on the complexity of the human mind.

The same can be said of how it discusses the great abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, who is briefly introduced in these early episodes. Hopefully the later episodes will go into great detail about Douglass, especially since his 1876 speech on Lincoln perfectly summed up Lincoln's chief legacy — namely, that although Lincoln deserves credit for his courage and morality in ultimately acting to free enslaved people, "in his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man" and that "he was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country."

These are not criticisms of the miniseries, rather a comment on threads that I hope will be more fully explored and receive their due. I can simply say right now that the foundations have been laid, which seems promising.

There is one shortcoming in the documentary that could not have been helped, given that this was filmed before Election Day 2020, but it is regrettable nonetheless. One of the main reasons Lincoln could not prevent the Civil War was that his presidential predecessor, James Buchanan, was virulently pro-slavery and openly sympathized with the South's desire to secede. The parallels between Buchanan/Lincoln during the 1860 election and Donald Trump/Joe Biden during the 2020 election are hard to miss. On both occasions, the side of the country that lost an election refused to accept that the side that won should be allowed to govern, using far right-wing arguments and claiming that the winning side posed an existential threat to them or was somehow illegitimate despite irrefutable facts to the contrary. On both occasions, the outgoing administration (Buchanan, Trump) refused to work with the incoming one (Lincoln, Biden) even though there were terrible crises (a Civil War, a pandemic and depression) that required immediate attention. There are even similarities in the little details, such as how Buchanan and Trump were both corrupt (then again, Buchanan was not a candidate in the 1860 election and never tried to physically stop Lincoln from taking office). While the filmmakers could not have known to a certainty that Trump would act like Buchanan after Biden's victory, it still weakens the miniseries that so little attention is paid to Buchanan's reaction to Lincoln's victory. It would be like making a documentary about Biden's presidency but only giving cursory attention to how Trump created the conditions that Biden would have to confront.

Yet this is a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things. Lincoln is one of those historical figures who keeps on giving, a man whose protean gifts and complex personality makes it possible even for historians like myself to constantly learn new things. Whether the miniseries is describing in detail how Zachary Taylor betrayed Lincoln after the latter campaigned for him in Illinois during the 1848 presidential election or exploring the attempt to assassinate Lincoln in 1861 (The Washington Post recently profiled a woman who helped protect him), it is full of fun little gems — and sober reminders of the ugliness that coils beneath the surface of America's past — that will make any serious Lincoln scholar take a few moments to stop and think.

That, I suspect, is what Lincoln would have wanted.

New episodes of "Lincoln: Divided We Stand" air Sundays at 10 p.m. on CNN.

How a mass suicide by slaves caused the legend of the flying African to take off

In May 1803 a group of enslaved Africans from present-day Nigeria, of Ebo or Igbo descent, leaped from a single-masted ship into Dunbar Creek off St. Simons Island in Georgia. A slave agent concluded that the Africans drowned and died in an apparent mass suicide. But oral traditions would go on to claim that the Eboes either flew or walked over water back to Africa.

For generations, island residents, known as the Gullah-Geechee people, passed down the tale. When folklorists arrived in the 1930s, Igbo Landing and the story of the flying African assumed a mythological place in African American culture.

Though the site carries no bronze plaque and remains unmarked on tourist maps, it has become a symbol of the traumatizing legacy of trans-Atlantic slavery. Poets, artists, filmmakers, jazz musicians, griots, novelists such as Toni Morrison and pop stars like Beyoncé have all told versions of the tale.

They'll often switch up the story's details to reflect different times and places. Yet the heart of the original tale, one of longing for freedom, beats through each of these retellings. The stories continue to resonate because those yearnings – whether they're from the cargo hold of a sloop or the confines of a prison cell – remain just as intense today.

Sourcing the story

As an academic trained in literary history, I always look for the reasons behind a story's origins, and how stories travel or change over time. Variations of the flying African myth have been recorded from Arkansas to Canada, Cuba and Brazil.

Yet even as the many versions cut across the Black diaspora, the legend has coalesced around a single place: St. Simons. An entry in the Georgia Encyclopedia makes a direct correlation between the 1803 rebellion mass suicide and the later, literary folkloric tradition.

Why? One reason is geographic.

St. Simons, part of the archipelago that stretches from Florida to North Carolina, long remained separate from the mainland United States. This isolation allowed African customs to survive, where elsewhere they were assimilated or vanished. Historian Melissa L. Cooper describes the Gullah-Geechee people as cultural conservators, tasked in popular culture with the duties of preservation.

A sticker celebrating the Geechee heritage is seen on a pickup truck as passengers board a ferry.

The Gullah-Geechee are descendants of enslaved people who reside on the Southeast coast of the U.S.

AP Photo/David Goldman

Serendipity also played a role in siting the story. When a causeway from mainland Brunswick to St. Simons was built in 1924, folklorists literally followed a paved route into the past. During the New Deal, the Works Project Administration funded an oral history project that involved interviewing formerly enslaved people, and the flying African story was recorded in “Drums and Shadows," the classic volume that published interviews from the project.

One Works Project Administration interviewer recorded St. Simons raconteur Floyd White asking, “Heahd about Ibo's Landing. Das duh place weah dey bring duh Ibos obuh in a slabe ship."

They “staht singing and de mahch right down in duh ribbuh" – Dunbar Creek – and “mahch back tuh Africa." But they never get home, White adds: “Dey gits drown."

Floyd White is a key source on the flying African, though as the hackneyed written transcription of his interview suggests, questions linger. The Ebos, by his account, walk, rather than fly, across the water. White allows that he does not personally believe the myth; he says they drowned.

Stories change, song remains the same

The flying African, despite a genealogy rooted in St. Simons, has no single point of origin. A shifting present continues to rewrite the past. These differences across versions only underscore the strength of the myth's central core.

Take how music is used. In almost every account of Igbo Landing, the Africans sing before they fly. They chant in a dialect of Bantu, one of Africa's 500 languages: “Kum buba yali kum buba tambe, / Kum kunka yalki kum kunka tambe." Those words don't have a direct translation; the words, more often, get described as secret, magical or lost.

But since the 1960s, in many retellings, the Bantu has been updated to the hymn “Oh Freedom," an anthem first recorded after the Civil War and later popularized during the civil rights movement.

The storyteller Auntie Zya recounts the Igbo Landing legend in a YouTube post. To make the tale more relevant to children today, she launches into the familiar refrain, “And before I'd be a slave," using the hymn to bridge the myth and a long struggle for civil rights.

And then there's Toni Morrison's novel “Song of Solomon," the very title of which links music and flight. In the story, the novel's main character, Milkman Dead, pieces together mysterious lyrics to recover a hidden past. Once he understands the song, he leaps from a Virginia cliff and flies away. Or is it suicide? The ending is famously ambiguous.

Toni Morrison talks about how, as a child, she was inspired by stories of enslaved African people flying home to their freedom.

Healing through flight

Like all powerful myths, Igbo Landing and the flying African transcend boundaries of time and space.

Experimental filmmaker Sophia Nahli Allison perceives memories from Dunbar Creek as an “ancestral map." In a poetic narrative she lays over a dance montage, she muses: “Dreams are reality, time is relative, and the past, present, and future are melding together." Allison suggests that the cross-generational continuity of the myth nurtures her, sustaining her voice through centuries of violence.

Children's author Virginia Hamilton, likewise, offers the flying African as a script for healing. Her most famous story, “The People Could Fly," broaches the difficult subject of the Middle Passage, the leg of the slave trade in which Africans, tightly packed in slave ships, were transported across the Atlantic Ocean.

[You're smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation's authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter.]

Hamilton explains why some Africans had to leave their wings behind when forced to America. “They couldn't take their wings across the water on the slave ships," she writes. “Too crowded, don't you know."

How does a culture get those wings back?

Where some storytellers linger over haunting images, such as the chains supposedly still heard in Dunbar Creek, artists such as Morrison, Allison and Hamilton look forward. Their stories lay the groundwork for recovery.

Hamilton presents “The People Could Fly" as a direct form of hope. In a preface to her collection of that title, she explains how tales “created out of sorrow" carry Black America forward. She reminds readers: “Keep close all the past that was good, and that remains full of promise." A painful past must be summoned in order to be redeemed.

Igbo Landing starkly illustrated, in 1803, how the choice between slavery and death was not a choice at all. Slavery, sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote, was also social death.

But it's important to remember that joy doubles as a form of decolonization. Music threads through every version of the flying African legend. Magic words propel fieldworkers into the sky, “Kum yali kum buba tambe." In song, our spirits lift.

And who among us does not dream of flight?The Conversation

Thomas Hallock, Professor of English, University of South Florida

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New documentary paints disturbing picture of Woody Allen

New York (AFP) - A new documentary series premiering Sunday on the HBO network, "Allen v. Farrow," paints a damning picture of Oscar-winning director Woody Allen, particularly regarding his alleged sexual abuse of young adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow. Even if the four-part series contains no major revelations, it seems certain to further sully the already battered reputation of the aging New York filmmaker. Respected documentary directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering delve into Allen's past, using testimony and legal documents -- some not previously seen -- to dig deeper than anyone before them....

Frances McDormand journeys to an Oscar-worthy performance in Chloe Zhao's wandering 'Nomadland'

"I'm not homeless, I'm just . . . houseless. Not the same thing," Fern (Frances McDormand) insists early on in "Nomadland," writer/director Chloé Zhao's elegiac drama, based on Jessica Bruder's book. The film (out now on Hulu) had premiered recently at the Toronto Film Festival in tandem with the canceled Telluride Film Festival and in solidarity with the Venice Film Festival (where it just won the Golden Lion). It will also be a centerpiece selection at the upcoming New York Film Festival.

Fern is first seen loading her van, named "Vanguard," and taking seasonal work at Amazon. She parks in an RV community with Linda May (playing herself), another woman who has taken to life on the road. In a heartfelt speech, Linda May describes contemplating suicide, and explains she can't get by on the benefits of early retirement. Fern has her own story of economic hardship; she lived in Empire, Nevada with her late husband until the U.S. Gypsum Corporation plant shut down in 2011 and the zip code was discontinued.

"Nomadland" is certainly about the impact of the Great Recession and there are points made about being in debt, the "tyranny of the dollar," and the freedom of living life on your own terms. Zhao thankfully, never gets too didactic, though the film is best when Fern is in motion. (Oddly, this drama feels like a mashup of "The Lady in the Van," Alan Bennett's memoir about his bond with a transient woman who parked in his driveway for 15 years; "Nickel and Dimed," Barbara Ehrenreich's investigation of unskilled labor in America; and Cheryl Strayed's "Wild.")

When Fern heads to Arizona and a camp run by Bob Wells (as himself), she hears stories from other "nomads": a vet with PTSD; a woman on a "healing journey," after losing both her parents to cancer; and a worker from corporate America who retired early so as not waste a moment of her life. These tales are sad and earnest and explain why some individuals want to eschew social norms, reconnect to nature, and become a part of this "tribe." But the real people playing themselves have conviction. And for some of them — as is the case with Fern — this life is more a necessity than a true desire. Fern's purpose for her nomadic life becomes clear late in the film. It is almost disappointing that this is revealed. It is as if Zhao does not trust the audience to determine the root of her restlessness from what is presented.

"Nomadland" deftly captures the community of these salt-of-the-earth folks who swap items, and value only a few sentimental possessions. (Fern's are a set of dishes). They sit around campfires, sometimes go dancing, and help each other out, as when someone gets a flat tire, wants a cigarette or needs medical assistance.

The drama is kept to a minimum. Zhao takes an almost anthropological approach, much like she did in her previous features, "The Rider," and "Songs My Brothers Taught Me," to show what daily life is like for the characters. They work menial jobs, like cleaning restrooms, and cook in their vans. But then Zhao features shots of Fern driving through a mountainous region, floating naked in a clear river, or walking through a field at sunset, or admiring trees in a forest. Ludovico Einaudi's piano music creates a sense of poignancy during these moments but his score sounds like he has been listening to too much George Winston. Moreover, these glorious images don't quite jibe with the hardscrabble lives. The film falters whenever it slips into sentiment.

At one point Fern has a meet-cute with Dave (David Strathairn) over a can opener and they become friendly, reconnecting later in the Badlands of South Dakota. They have an easygoing friendship, and Dave obviously wants it to become romantic. Fern, however, is fiercely independent, and at times abrupt with him. After they both take jobs working at Wall Drugs, Dave is soon pulled in one direction by his son, which drives Fern to go back on the road.

There is little tension about if Fern ever settles back down because that is not the point. "Nomadland" handles this elegantly and eloquently in what is arguably the film's most moving exchange between Fern and her sister, Dolly (Melissa Smith). But Fern is just as impassioned telling someone that she sees value in how she built out her van, or when she refuses to take a bed in a church on a cold night, and those moments reveal much about her character.

Fern may often be alone, but she never comes across as lonely. She is seen reading in a laundromat, celebrating New Year's Eve with a sparkler, and inexplicably playing a flute in her van. McDormand, who is in every scene, makes Fern as tough at the plant she named for in that she adapts and survives. The actress gives a committed performance that will likely garner her an Oscar nomination. Her weathered face shows her grit and fortitude, and she communicates her emotions in the way she knits her brow or darts her eyes. But Fern is also open and friendly, and she has some lovely scenes with Swankie (playing herself), a fellow nomad.

"Nomadland" is certainly well-crafted. The cinematography by Joshua James Richards is exquisite. But somehow, the film does not quite deliver the emotional impact Zhao is likely striving to achieve. Then again, perhaps the point is that there is no there there.

"Nomadland" is now streaming on Hulu.

Beyonce offering ‘Winter Storm Assistance’ to Texans, others affected by storm

Beyonce is lending a helping hand to her hometown. The pop superstar’s Houston-based BeyGood nonprofit organization have joined forces with Adidas to give up to $1,000 to those suffering from the aftereffects of the devastating winter storm. Funds are earmarked for those living in Texas or any state affected by the storms, which have left hundreds of thousands of people without power in freezing temperatures. According to the application on its website, the disaster relief assistance fund — in partnership with Bread of Life, Inc. — will provide a one-time payment to those who have experienced ...

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