Sankofa and Other Birds as Symbols and Omens

sankofa
In writing class yesterday, one of the other students enlightened us all about “sancofa” bird. I found it fascinating and so did a little research on Wikipedia. It seems the more common spelling is “sankofa.”

 

Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates as “Go back and get it.” (San = to return, ko = to go, fa = fetch, to seek and take.) It also refers to the Asante Adinkra symbol represented by a stylized heart shape, common in adinkra cloth in Ghana and wrought iron fences in the U.S.

 

sankofa other birds
But the bird image is what really struck me. Its feet face forward, head turned back, an egg in its mouth. “It symbolizes taking from the past what is good and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress through the benevolent knowledge.” It appears on many objects to foster mutual respect and unity in tradition. In North America, sankofa symbols are featured at the African Burial Ground National Monument in NYC and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Indeed, such symbols are all over Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and New York City.

 

sankofa
Sankofa appears often in tattoos, songs, and the names of musical groups.

 

All of this reminded me of the ubiquity of bird symbolism and the belief in birds as omens of the future.

 

The flight of birds makes them good symbols of the links between heaven and earth. The bird as a symbol of heaven stands in opposition to the snake, a symbol of earth. A bird is often seen as a messenger from the gods or forewarning. In general, birds are associated with spiritual states, angels, and higher forms of being. But individual types of birds often have specific meanings. Here are a few of the most pervasive ones, from all over the world.
bustard
The bustard is a symbol of the marriage of souls, of fertility, and of the descent of souls into the material world. It is common to many Berber tribes of Marabouts. The tuareg of Aïr, south of Hoggar, have their shields charged with a pair of of bustard’s feet. This same type of symbolism can be found in the Far East, in the crow’s foot of the Celtic world, and on the robes of Uralo-Altaic shamans, and in the caves of Lascaux. Even though it’s old, it can still be useful to writers.
crane
In Asia, cranes are symbols of long life.
cuckoo bird
Cuckoos are welcomed as a sign of spring in Europe, and are omens of a happy marriage.
doves
Doves symbolize love and peace. Dreaming of them means happiness is at hand.
bald eagle
Eagles are held sacred by Native Americans. Their claws and bones are believed to drive away illness. And as the symbol of the U.S., the bald eagle stands for endurance, independence, and courage.
barn owl
Owls are considered prophets of doom. In ancient Rome as well as modern European and American superstitions, a hooting owl warns of death. In Greece, the owl is associated especially with Athena, goddess of wisdom and fertility.
 phoenix
The phoenix is mythical, of course, but supposedly it dies by fire, then rises from its own ashes after 500 years! Therefore, it is a symbol of renewed life.
raven
I especially like crows and ravens. Ravens, in particular have been revered by sailors, especially Viking explorers, for their ability to find land. Some cultures believe ravens can predict death and disease. Folklore has it that the raven’s sense of smell is so acute that it can smell death before it comes.
stork
Although a stork is among the unclean beasts, in general it’s considered to be a good omen. Storks are symbols of good luck, of filial piety. In folklore—fairytales?—storks deliver babies, and some endow the stork with the power to cause pregnancy by its glance.

 

Bottom line: Stories often include symbolism, so why not insert some on purpose? Practically any bird—or animal— will do. Just look it up. Alternatively, use the superstitions and mythology to begin stories of magical realism.

When Your Character is Prejudiced

character prejudiced
Prejudice is an unjustified or incorrect attitude (usually negative) towards an individual based solely on his/her membership in a social group. In my opinion, prejudice is relatively benign for the target person if the prejudiced person does not act on the negative attitude. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case.

 

Discrimination is an action or behavior (including verbal)—usually negative—towards an individual or group of people on the basis of the prejudice. This is where the bad happens. Employment opportunities foreclosed. Inequality in lending practices. Lack of access to educational opportunities. Denial of goods or services (e.g., refusing to make a wedding cake for the wedding of a gay couple). Hate crimes.

 

A classic example of prejudice leading to negative behavior:

 

character prejudiced
So, one big question for you as a writer is what your character does as a reflection of his/her prejudice.
 
Although prejudice is an umbrella term for all sorts of -isms (as seen in the image above) it is also a subset of attitudes. And prejudice includes all three components of an attitude: cognitive, behavioral, and affective—how one thinks, behaves, and feels about a person, object, or act.

 

But before you can write realistically about a prejudiced character, you need to decide what function the prejudice serves for this character.
 
Cognitive adjustive: Lacking other information, one accepts stereotypes and/or prejudiced views as a way of knowing how to think and behave with a stranger.

 

Social normative: Holding attitudes—including prejudice—that allow the person to fit into a group or social setting. This might be family, gang, town, workplace, social class—any group the person wants entry to.

 

Ego-defensive: The person is basically insecure and adopts a prejudice to bolster feelings of self-worth. If a person has perceived lacks or failures, one way to feel better about oneself is to develop negative attitudes toward a whole group of people who, by the nature of who they are, can be viewed as inferior.

 

So, do you want your character to change? Depending on the function served, prejudice may be more or less entrenched. If it is based on lack of information, education and factual data will result in attitude change. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting to know members of the group. If it is based on group membership or conformity, changing reference groups will lead to attitude change. For example, moving to a different part of the country, changing schools or jobs, marrying into a family with differing attitudes, etc. The ego-defensive function is the most difficult to change. A person might suppress expression of deeply held biases when they are socially unacceptable (i.e., politically incorrect) but allow them expression when the atmosphere is right. Hate speech, hate crimes, and the rise of white supremacist groups are examples easily tracked online.

 

character prejudiced
The ego-defensive function is highly robust. Prejudice serving this function is immune to factual evidence to the contrary, simply not believing the data. If, somehow, the facts cannot be denied, then one or more other groups might become targets of his/her prejudice. Eliminating prejudice for such people often involves psychotherapy because the cause is rooted in self-esteem, self-concept, and other deep psychological needs.

 

Often prejudice is negatively related to the mental health of the prejudiced person. For example, racism is a symptom of lack of psychological integration, self-esteem, and inner security. Similarly, sexism is unhealthy. Psychologists looked at 10 years of data from nearly 20,000 men and found that those who value having power over women and who endorse playboy-type behavior, and who hold traditional notions of masculinity (such as self-reliance), were more likely to experience depression, stress, body image issues, substance abuse, and negative social functioning. So if your character’s prejudice is racism or sexism, consider giving him/her some of these other characteristics as well.
 
Last but not least, consider how your character’s prejudice might bring him/her into conflict with others.
 
westboro rally richmond
“Costume-clad kazoo players and drummers jubilantly respond to the Westboro Baptist Church.” [Source: Style Weekly]
 
Bottom line: Prejudice is a rich resource for writing your characters!

Transportation of Prostitutes During the Civil War

Schuylkill Valley Journal of the Arts

Some of you are familiar with my short story mysteries featuring Clara, an engaging prostitute who plied her trade during the Civil War with men whose sexual preferences included “soft” fetishes—i.e., nothing painful, more like making love in caskets, lapping brandy from her bellybutton, or enjoying chocolate applied with feathers. (So far, no one’s complained about the lack of explicit sexual detail on the page!) And somehow, she was repeatedly embroiled in solving mysterious deaths.

Well, I’m working on another Clara story, and here are some bits of info I think you’ll find interesting.

The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell thomas lowry

I stumbled across this book some years ago in the gift shop at the Museum of the Confederacy and bought it, because who isn’t interested in sex? Since then, Thomas P. Lowry has become my favorite writer on the topic! However, I’ve also searched online. I won’t be giving specific citations, because many of these facts pop up in several writings.

The topic of prostitution isn’t as intensively researched and written about as many other Civil War topics, and one might assume that’s because it was a minor issue. Wrong! In 1864 there were 450 brothels in Washington and over 75 in Alexandria, Virginia. A newspaper estimated there were 5000 “public women” in DC and another 2500 in Alexandria and Georgetown—and this is just an example. Whenever army troops set up camps, nearby small towns were overrun with women in the sex trade.

One estimate was that 40% of soldiers suffered the pox (syphilis) and/or the clap (gonorrhea). These STIs were nearly as dangerous to soldiers as battle—which prompted military officers to take action. That often took the form of moving bawdy women elsewhere.

Ivanhoe ship
[Source]
For example, Major General William Rosecrans ordered that all prostitutes found in Nashville or known to be there be seized and transported to Louisville. What followed was that a recently christened steamboat, the Idahoe, was basically conscripted to move 111 of the most infamous of the sex workers. Louisville refused dockage to the Idahoe, and ordered them on to Cincinnati instead. Cincinnati also refused to accept them, so they were sent to Kentucky, but were turned away by Covington and Newport. Bottom line: they ended up back in Nashville.

Similar rounding up of prostitutes and forcibly transporting them to the enemy’s city by train was common between Richmond, Virginia and Washington, DC—which promoted women being spies. (But spying is for another day.) In any case, such transportation did not take into account the convenience, preferences, or comfort of the women. For example, one report on the women aboard the Idahoe said the women were in bad shape when they returned to Nashville: “The majority are a homely, forlorn set of degraded creatures. Having been hurried on the boats by a military guard, many were without a change of wardrobe.” Nor were they properly fed after the first three days.

civil war era train
[Source]
Bottom line: Prostitution during the Civil War is a fascinating topic to pursue!

What Changed Bradley Harper’s Life: The Old Woman and the Monk

author bradley harper

In my print interview with Bradley Harper, he mentioned an event that changed his life but was too long to go into just there. Well, here he goes into it!

 

Ribadiso, Spain
Ribadiso, Spain [Source]

For three years I volunteered at a small pilgrim hostel in Galicia, Spain, caring for pilgrims walking the Camino to Santiago de Compostela. The hamlet where the hostel lies is named Ribadiso, 41 kilometers from the end. Some pilgrims started in Sarria, 60 kilometers away, some back as far as the border with France, or even farther. Some walked three days, others six weeks or more. I spent a fair amount of time treating the blisters of the “Sarristas,” but the long distance hikers were well past that.

The reason for the pilgrimage varied by age group. Mature pilgrims like myself often did so as an act of atonement, or to keep a promise. Younger pilgrims were often seeking “something.” Ribadiso is two days from the end, and these young pilgrims were often in a panic. They hadn’t had their burning bush moment; no Divine Tweet as to what this particular journey meant, and they were nearly done. They feared returning home no wiser than before.

To these pilgrims I gave a different kind of treatment. I have the white beard, so find playing the role of wise old man a good fit—though don’t tell my wife! I told them a parable from the Tao tradition, which often has helped me in stressful times.

Two monks, an older one and his apprentice, are on a pilgrimage when they come to a shallow but wide river. An old woman approaches the elder and demands he carry her across. He bends over, she climbs on, and once they reach the other side she hops off without a word of thanks.

That night as the two monks prepare to sleep, the apprentice confesses that he is still very angry over how the old woman treated his master. “You must be very tired, my friend,” answers his teacher. “I put her down when I crossed the river. It seems you have been carrying her ever since.” I then pointed to the pilgrim’s rucksack. “Everything in there weighs something. You carefully considered the burden it represented, versus the value it would provide you on your journey.

“Perhaps the purpose for your pilgrimage was not for you to gain something, but to guide you to what you should put down. Consider that, and when you arrive at the cathedral in Santiago, decide what you want to lay at the feet of the saint.”

santiago de compostela cathedral
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral [Source]
I carry that parable with me to this day. I used to stress out over traffic. When someone
cut me off or tailgated, my blood pressure would rise, and I might be angry for some
time afterwards. Now I think of the old woman, and let it go. My path lies ahead. My
pilgrimage continues. No need to add to the burden.

Buen Camino.

Brad

bradley harper author

Bradley Harper bio: Dr. Harper served over 37 years in the Army, first as an Airborne Infantry Platoon Leader, and culminating as the Deputy Assistant Surgeon General for the US Army in the Pentagon.

While serving as the Command Surgeon for US Army South he spent time in Colombia overseeing a joint training course with the Colombian Army, and had a $1.5 million bounty on his head (alive) for anyone who could deliver him to the FARC alive (offer no longer valid).

Fluent in Spanish, he speaks four languages other than English and for the five years after retirement he volunteered in Galicia, Spain, to assist pilgrims making their way to Santiago de Compostela. He had the unique experience of serving as the acting commander of the US Army Hospital in Heidelberg, Germany, on the fiftieth anniversary of GEN Patton’s death there, and presided over the commemoration ceremony involving both US military and German local dignitaries.

Board Certified in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology, he has conducted over two-hundred autopsies, several of them forensic in nature, and uses his clinical experiences to inform his writing. He has worked as a professional Santa Claus for the past five years at a local theme park. A soft touch, he only threatens those on the Naughty List with burnt cookies.

His writing credits include a short story sold to The Strand and The Sherlock Holmes Magazine of Mystery, as well as his award-winning debut novel, A Knife in the Fog, featuring a young Arthur Conan Doyle, Professor Joseph Bell, Doyle’s inspiration for Holmes, and Margaret Harkness. Miss Harkness was an author and Suffragette who lived in the East End of London for a while to do research on her novels featuring the working poor. Together these Three Musketeers assist the London Metropolitan Police in the hunt for the man who became known as Jack the Ripper, until he begins hunting them!

Throwback Post: Helpful and Hazardous Critique Groups

I’ve been writing a lot, but it’s something other than a blog post! For today’s post, enjoy a throwback article on the pros and cons of critique groups, originally posted in November 2016.

Last week I wrote about editing yourself. For most writers, self-editing is necessary but not sufficient to make the writing its best. That’s where critique groups and reading partners come in. Personally, I prefer a small group, four or five seeming ideal to me. The strength in numbers is that having multiple readers with different strengths can cover more of the territory: some might pick up on word choices and sentence structure, while others look more at the big picture of character and plot development.

 

helpful hazardous critique groups
Regardless of number, good readers have much in common:

 

1. They want your writing to be the best possible version of your work.
2. They are frank, but kind in their delivery.
3. They don’t get pissed if you don’t make a change they suggested.
4. If the group is unanimous in a certain point (e.g., a weak opening paragraph), believe it.
5. They can help you realize that some vital information is in your head but not on the page, especially with memoirs.
6. They can tell you when the impression you intended to create isn’t the one you did create.
7. They understand the expectations of your genre.
8. They make specific comments, so that you know how to fix what doesn’t work.
9. They don’t try to compete to be the best in the group.
helpful hazardous critique groups
Bad groups can be hazardous to your writing health in numerous ways.

 

1. It’s all about the competition.
2. They confuse critiquing with criticizing, and so don’t offer praise.
3. They give vague feedback that gives you no direction (e.g., “This is great” or “This doesn’t do it for me”).
4. They try to get you to write like them.
5. They socialize, eating up meeting time with too much chit-chat.
6. They get so involved with agreeing or disagreeing with your premise that they lose sight of the quality of the writing. This is especially the case when the topic is politics or religion—or any sort of opinion piece.

 

There are some things that will help a group to be good. There are online resources and guidelines you might adopt. In my experience, here are a few basics:

 

1. Set down the group guidelines in writing.
2. Be clear about what types of writing will be acceptable (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir, opinion essays, etc.) and stick to them.
3. Be clear about how feedback will be given.
4. Specify when the work is due, in what form, and what length.
5. Decide what happens when someone misses a meeting: Are they expected to send comments on others’ work? Can they send work anyway?
6. What if someone comes without having written anything?
7. Stick to a regular meeting time and schedule.
8. Get the group’s consensus when changing any of this.
9. Keep the group small enough that everyone can have sufficient and equal time.
10. Meet at least twice a month.

 

helpful hazardous critique groups

You need to feel comfortable, supported, and helped. This is a very personal thing. If you find yourself in a “bad” group, get out!