liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,
liz_marcs
liz_marcs

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When You Wake the Black Man from Boston, Nicholas Scratch Will Surely Come to Call

On July 12, 2003, Sen. Santorum cried out and pointed an accusing finger at the Black Man from Boston, falling into the trap that has resulted in destroyed lives, reputations, and the end of great political movements, especially religiously fueled ones.

For you see, when you cry out on the Black Man from Boston, you wake Nicholas Scratch, and he will surely come to call on you.

I am tempted to ask the good Republican Senator from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: Are you entirely sure you want to get the estimable Mr. Scratch's attention?

And while no time is a good time to draw the eyes of Nicholas Scratch to you, you are currently faced with a populace who is growing increasingly discontented with the Republican Congress and Republican White House; a growing population of people who've figured out they were lied to about Iraq; the president's right-hand man Karl Rove on the verge to twisting in the wind thanks to sudden break-throughs in the Valerie Plame case; a tanking economy; grumbling from the evangelical Christians on the right who want to exercise some political power and get payback, but don't feel they're getting enough of it...

And have we mentioned? Your poll numbers are sinking like a stone for the 2006 Senate Race. And your Democratic challenger, who's ahead of you by an almost 2-to-1 margin, hasn't even started campaigning yet. Lose in 2006, that will surely hurt your run for President in 2008.

Are you entirely certain you want the attention of Nicholas Scratch?

Ahhhh, it's too late now. I do believe He's seen you already. Do witness the sudden number of body blows landing on you and your party. It may have taken Him three years to work His wiles, but now He is calling payment due.

However, I admire you for continuing to assert that, indeed, the Black Man is from Boston, even in the face of people who are starting wonder if you're insane or just an insensitive clod.

What makes this truly funny, Senator, is that you're not wrong. You're not wrong at all.


You see, since the earliest Colonial times, everyone knew that Satan lived in Boston. That you've just discovered this causes me to worry about your lack of historical knowledge and your poor powers of observation.

The past week has been what I’d call historically ironic. I’m someone who enjoys working out patterns history makes and am fascinated when I see them continuously repeated in new and interesting combinations.

But to see the folkloric beliefs and ways of 17th century New England played on a national stage is a sign that maybe we really do live in strange times after all.

The week was kicked off by the United Church of Christ Synod voting to recognize same-sex marriages by a almost a 3-to-1 margin. The vote, aside from causing some nasty backlash and harsh words from certain more conservative sects, also caused no small amount of good-natured consternation.

The UCC, after all, traces half its lineage to the Puritans themselves, those grim forebears of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. And while the Synod’s decision is not binding on all UCC churches, the fact that the Equality in Marriage document passed so overwhelmingly sent a powerful message to other Christian denominations, one that may reverberate subconsciously for years to come. After all, the crazy Unitarian Universalists may have been there first, but lets be honest, the UUs have been demonized by more conservative Christians since time immemorial for being not quite Christian. A charge which, depending on your local congregation, may be true.

But the UCC has the bloodline. It’s got one of the oldest, most established, Protestant religions to put roots down in the U.S.A. in its DNA. This has the stench of history about it.

Unless, of course, you actually know your history.

The Puritans were not “anti-sex” as far too many people believe. This erroneous idea is the fault of bad pop history, grouchy moralists that lived at the top of the Massachusetts Bay Colony power pyramid like Cotton Mather, and, lest we forget, lurid stories of the Salem Witch Trials.

But then again, far too many people all over the world believe that Witches were burned in Salem, Massachusetts, so really, what the hell do they know?

People forget, from Colonial times all the way up until the early 19th century, Massachusetts and the whole of New England was populated by farmers, fishermen, hunters, fur trappers, tradesmen, and merchants. These people had an extremely utilitarian view of sex: it was reality, it happened, it was part of life.

All you need to do is just a little research to uncover such practices as bundling. Or look into the old laws of various New England states about paternity which stated that any child born within six months after a marriage was not considered a bastard by law. (In some localities, it was even as low as five months). Or even the practice of the local midwife to question a single, pregnant mother while she was in labor and demand the name of the baby’s father until the woman cried out a name, as was detailed in A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812.

This is not a portrait of a people squeamish about sex. This is a portrait of a people realistic about sex. True, this realism is tempered by the morality of the time, as in the requirement that the parents of a child get married to provide "legitimacy." But there is realism there.

In this historical light, the UCC’s decision should come as no surprise at all. This is, once more, the famous Puritan realism coming to the fore. Same-sex couples are cohabitating and making lives together. Same-sex couples are having children and raising them. Some countries (and the odd state) legally recognize the rights of same-sex couples to have those lives.

The UCC is not paving the way. The UCC is playing catch-up. The UCC is recognizing reality, just as its Puritan ancestors did when it comes to love and sex.

So what does this have to with Black Men in Boston, Nicholas Scratch, and Sen. Santorum?

History.

Read Santorum's words in his original article:

While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm.

Now read his statements made just today:

Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, refused yesterday to back off on his earlier statements connecting Boston's "liberalism" with the Roman Catholic Church pedophile scandal, saying that the city's "sexual license" and "sexual freedom" nurtured an environment where sexual abuse would occur.

"The basic liberal attitude in that area...has an impact on people's behavior," Santorum said in an interview yesterday at the Capitol.

"If you have a world view that I'm describing [about Boston]...that affirms alternative views of sexuality, that can lead to a lot of people taking it the wrong way," Santorum said.

Allow me a moment to do the happy dance.

Now let me explain.

Santorum is no more, no less, announcing to the world that Black Man still lives in Boston. For Black Man, read "Satan."

In our modern parlance, Black Man is a description applied to men of African-American descent. However, any descent folklorist will tell you that the Black Man of Boston was not an African-American. If he were, he'd be called a "Negro," or more likely, "a freed Negro." African slaves were not common in the New England colonies. The slaves that were here (like Tituba of Salem Witch Trials fame) were more likely Carib Indians. An actual African slave would cause comment and would, in fact, be called "Negro."

No. When people spoke of the Black Man from Boston, they were referring to one of two things: a Native American (not likely, but the colonists often believed the local tribes were servants of the devil) or a man dressed in black, as in a minister.

Only in my fevered brain would I think pedophile Catholic priests = Black Man from Boston, especially since the good senator seems hell-bent on blaming Boston itself for causing the scandal. I'm certain the Boston Globe reporters are thrilled to find out that they were somehow involved in causing the scandal, when all they actually did was blow the lid off what was a national sickness.

And so here it is, although stated in much more modern terms: Satan lives in Boston and he rules the streets with an iron fist. He whispers incorrect ideas into the ears of the inhabitants. He leads them from the path of righteousness. And if God is a just God, it is certain that this modern day Sodom shall burn to the ground.

Any day now.

Any day. Now.

*checks out my bedroom window*

Nope. Not yet.

From the earliest Colonial times, Boston has always been pegged as Satan's hometown. He has always found his most willing converts here. He even has his own congregation.

I'm certain that Satan, or his cultural equivalent, lives in other cities in other countries. But as far as North America is concerned, Satan has always lived in Boston, even from the earliest Colonial times. I'm unaware of any accusation that he's lived elsewhere in the U.S. or Canada. And if he has, he's certainly lived here much longer than anywhere else.

He probably even has an awesome apartment on Newbury Street.

However, that the Black Man lives here is not the issue. The issue is when he rides forth from Boston and begins spreading liberalism to peace-loving, God-fearing neighboring communities, rather than sticking to his own hearth.

What he does is terrible. He makes good Puritan girls sign their names in blood in his Book and gives them the power of witches. Or he stalks the halls of power and demands recognition for same-sex marriages, strict separation of Church and State, a woman's right to choose, and that evolution be taught in your schools.

Pick your personal evil here, based on the century you live in.

But in truth, the Black Man is a good neighbor. He adheres to those traditional conservative values. He adheres to solid Yankee values that have defined New England since the first white men stole some land from the natives and began carving out homesteads, villages, towns, and cities.

You know the one.

"That which doesn't pick my pocket or punch me in the nose isn't really any of my concern, or the concern of the government."

Maybe that's why Boston is such the puzzle. We look like liberals, when maybe we're really conservatives with solid conservative values. After all, wasn't that "none of your business" feeling once the bedrock of conservatism, before it was hijacked by neocons and the loony Dominionist religious right?

Liberal Massachusetts has the lowest divorce rate in the U.S., as well as a strong emphasis on social justice and education (although sometimes we inhabitants do wonder when government officials start screaming at each other under the gold dome at the Great and General Court).

So, if the Black Man lives here, he has caused us no trouble. There isn't even so much as a whiff of brimstone in the air. No one has turned into a pillar of salt. And there's a city where there should be a smoking crater.

But if you do get the Black Man's attention, such as in the manner used by Sen. Santorum...

Ooooooh, man. I feel so bad for you.

Because that's when Nicholas Scratch comes to call.

Nicholas Scratch is, himself, an interesting folkloric figure. I'm not sure where the name or character originates and my dogged search on the Internet has yielded pages and pages about a comic book bad guy who's a powerful sorcerer from the fictional town of New Salem, Colorado, or a character in a movie who's supposed to be Satan.

His actual New England persona isn't quite that simple.

Nicholas Scratch could be Satan, but he could also be simply a devil, depending on the story told.

He also wears many masks.

He is usually a trickster, not unlike Coyote in the Southwestern U.S., Raven in British Columbia, or even Legba in Benin, Africa, or Eshu in Yoruba (again Africa) mythology.

He can come across as a demanding genie who'll give you what you want in exchange for a very high price, usually your soul. Sometimes you get exactly what you wish for, sometimes your wish is not what you expected at all.

Other times, he's a truth-teller. He'll give you the truth, but will go through great lengths to warn you that some truths are best unknown, while all the while tempting you forward with your need to know. He never lies, although he can lie with the truth.

And yes, sometimes he is Satan himself, although not often. However, it's not out of bounds to say that the Black Man and Nicholas Scratch have been known to overlap in the imaginations of some New England authors.

Nicholas Scratch as been watered down by pop culture and sometimes made to look foolish. Take The Devil and Daniel Webster and all its pale imitations.

In the original story, Nicholas Scratch granted a 19th century New Hampshire farmer prosperity, influence, and power in exchange for the farmer's soul at the end of seven years. He lived up to his end of the bargain. When Mr. Scratch came to collect, our farmer hired famed orator Daniel Webster to get him out of the contract he signed in blood.

Faced with Nicholas Scratch as the judge and the worst criminals in U.S. history (at least those that lived and died before the turn of the 20th century), Daniel Webster essentially fought for, and got, jury nullification of a contract that all parties agreed was signed fair and square. It was the first jury nullification to be depicted in pop culture.

Furious, Nicholas Scratch warned Daniel Webster that in retribution his actions, he would lose his son to death and would be considered a traitor for his role in the Compromise of 1850, which postponed the Civil War at the cost of allowing slavery to continue in the then-U.S. territories.

Either way, Nicholas Scratch gives much, but demands much in return. He is not shy about calling his markers due and he always does so at the worst possible time.

In looking Sen. Santorum's 2003 article and his current political troubles, I wonder if Nicholas Scratch is calling the good senator's marker due.

Or maybe the Trickster has hopped a plane and is going out to teach certain Congressional members what happens when you speak ill of his neighbors and home.



It's a passing fancy on my part, I'm sure.

But whenever certain fearful souls point to Boston where Satan walks the streets, I imagine the Black Man of Boston looking up from his Dunkin' Donuts Great One coffee and his Boston Globe sports section to raise an elegant eyebrow in response.

That raised eyebrow always means trouble.

Whenever small men blame "the liberals" for serving the dark forces of evil, I remember that once the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony believed that Native Americans were the servants of Satan and that their victories against settlers was a sign of God's disfavor.

And when I watch scandal after scandal finally crashing over these tiny men, these frightened men, these men who pray to God in front of microphones to save them while wrapping themselves in an American flag, I can see disreputable Nicholas Scratch standing in the background and laughing at the futility of it all.

But there's no Daniel Webster or Johnnie Cochran with a Chewbacca Defense to save them.

History repeats.

All you need to do is see the pattern, and translate today's demons into yesterday's beliefs.

Sen. Santorum has accused the Black Man from Boston of crimes He did not commit. And now Nicholas Scratch will remind the good senator that no Satan, and no devil, can tempt a man (or woman) to do something that he (or she) was not already prone to do.

And suddenly, today seems like it's a very good day.
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