We should all feel vulnerable watching Texas energy crisis play out.

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, February 20, 2021

Earlier this week, even before I learned details of the disaster in Texas, I was feeling a little vulnerable. Maybe you were too. For the second time in 13 months, we were confronted by natural disasters made worse by governmental failures.

Last year it was the coronavirus; this week it’s been energy insecurity caused by historically freezing weather. In mid-Missouri, temperatures were headed below zero. Whatever a polar vortex is, it was the cause of the third coldest 12-day stretch in February in Missouri history. I suspect it is another extreme weather event probably related to the global climate change that American governments have done little about.

If mid-Missouri had a Texas-sized electrical failure, we all would have faced great personal hardship, in part because of housing and utility practices, and also because of personal lack of preparation. Losing electricity means my gas furnace would not work. Additionally, the electric stove in the kitchen would be useless.

An electricity outage of two to three days would have left me cold and practically helpless. I don’t have a fireplace, extra propane tanks or a backup generator. I am not well prepared. As I fetched my small camping stove from the bottom shelf in the garage, I realized if I lost power, I wouldn’t be able to use the garage door opener and I would be stuck. About all I could do was locate flashlights and candles, make sure my phone was charging and gather extra blankets and sleeping bags.

Many middle-class people were probably better prepared for an energy outage 50 years ago than we are today. We have traded the independence of old-fashioned living that had both gas and electric energies and a fireplace or wood burning stove for the convenience of electric living with all kinds of gadgets.

Low-income homes tend not to be built well, poorly insulated with risks of freezing indoor temperatures and frozen water pipes. Folks on oxygen or dialysis or other medical needs would be especially vulnerable without electricity or heat.

Some people, feeling vulnerable, sought security in hotels and casino resorts in Texas. I learned of this about 20 years ago when I was snowed in at the St. Louis Airport. I struck up a conversation with an elderly woman and learned she lived within 10 miles of the airport, but at the first hint of bad weather she packed a small bag and checked into a hotel across from the airport. She rode the shuttle several times a day whenever she wanted social interaction. That’s OK if a few people do it, but it is not a general solution to weather hardships.

Over the past few days, we all learned that good ole’ Texas has its own electric power grid that was ill prepared for the increased demands of frigid temperatures and the limitations of natural gas as a source for electric power.

Across Texas, 29 million people lost power at some point and an estimated 4 million had no electricity for more than three days. In first-class cities such as Austin, Dallas and Houston, people were freezing, going hungry or unable to get their medicines, and then the water system went down. Citizens, still without electricity, were advised to boil their drinking water.

This Texas disaster is another perfect storm of bad weather, bad personal preparation and bad luck, but it is a result of an underperforming political system that has ignored the requirement of competent governance for way too long. My concern is that we are all potentially vulnerable to unexpected upheavals in our daily lives because of a variety of infrastructure failures relating to transportation and municipal drinking water and wastewater systems.

Our day-to-day political system is primarily a circus of partisan combat rather than a responsible public policy decision-making process. Our news media adds to the circus, choosing to cover the cat fights or the horse races rather than the details of public policy. Just this week, I bet Sen. Ted Cruz’s poorly timed trip to Mexico received more cable TV coverage than did the complexities of the energy grid. Proper energy regulation is boring and tedious of greater interest to engineers, lawyers and PR specialists hired by the energy companies than to anyone else — including elected government officials. Yet, we are vulnerable to bad regulation that favors reduced compliance costs over the public welfare. I don’t necessarily criticize Texas for having its own power grid, but if it does then the governor, the state legislature and the Railroad Commission, which acts like our Public Utility Commission, need to seek the public good not political benefit.

Few of us need to know the intricacies of energy regulation, but we do need to need to recognize that complex systems require coordination and periodic upgrades that rely on major investment of public funds. Additionally, we need to ask better questions of political candidates and government officials. Imagine if presidential debates asked candidates their assessment of the energy grid and their plans to ensure that it is sound and suitable for the future.

Technology, as usual, is both the cause and the solution to the Texas disaster. While the Texas grid managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas needs critical review by the Texas legislature, which is considered one of the weakest in the nation, alternative energy technologies have the potential to decentralize electrical production and distribution. Improvements in solar technology can provide users the potential to consume, and store, the energy they produce. Moreover, back-up generators can reduce the risk of total societal disaster. The new Ford F-150 truck, for example, has a built-in generator that can be used for supplemental power.

One missing ingredient for energy security is a reliable, responsible, forward-thinking political system. We landed on the moon in 1969 because policymakers made it a national goal and businesses and higher education made it happen. Politics was simpler then. Let’s see if we can do it again.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu

Adding more African American history to MU necessary for understanding Jefferson

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN February 13, 2021

MU needs more, not less, in the way of opportunities to engage in our American history. Thank goodness the Task Force on Contextualization of the Thomas Jefferson Statue report opted to keep the statue on the Francis Quadrangle.

Colleges and universities are valued and supported by society because they are a venue for discovery and discussion, not because they decide what ideas are popular. MU should add, not subtract, historical artifacts on its campus in order to stimulate discussion that includes criticism of our history. In that light, the Jefferson statue on the Francis Quadrangle should be preserved, protected and joined by additional statues to promote a more complete understanding of our history.

The report of the Task Force on Contextualization of the Thomas Jefferson statue calls for placing a “wayside sign” explaining why the statue is on MU’s campus, Jefferson’s accomplishments and shortcomings, including “his role as a slave owner and the father of children by an enslaved person he owned.” The task force suggests the sign include a QR code to an information source such as Ellis Library’s guide.

Outdoor statues are different than museums. Statues can be a gathering point for discussion and demonstrations but can also be a still place for solitude. Passersby, be they students on the way to class, families bringing their sons and daughters for their first college visit or kids playing frisbee on the quad, can just glance and wonder or stop and reflect.

The task force’s report is a necessary first step, but it falls short of what MU should do to promote a more comprehensive understanding of race in America. MU should undertake a narrow-focused campus-wide discussion centered on two topics:

What should MU do to present a contemporary understanding of Jefferson?

What statue should join the Jefferson statue on Francis Quadrangle as a visible and permanent reminder to the MU community and visitors of the significant contributions of African Americans who are underappreciated in our history?

I offer two specific suggestions to keep the conversation going.

First, MU should adopt a day for all students, staff, and faculty to better acquaint themselves with the latest quality scholarship about Jefferson. I propose a day of reading and hearing the works of Harvard law and history professor Annette Gordon-Reed. She is the author of “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” (1996), which challenges prevailing arguments against Jefferson’s paternity of Hemings’s children and detailing oversights and bias, and the Pulitzer Prize winning “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family” (2008). Of course, many Gordon-Reed lectures and interviews are available on the internet.

On the one hand, the baby boom generation will be surprised by how much Jefferson scholarship has changed since we were in school. For example, a 1987 book by the late MU eminent historian Noble Cunningham observes “The evidence indicates that any Paris romance between Jefferson and Sally Hemings belongs in a work of fiction, not history.” Not so fast. By 1998, a DNA study in the journal Nature demonstrated that a male with Jefferson’s Y chromosome most likely fathered Eston Jefferson. In 2000, a report by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation concludes there is a high probability that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings, and that he was likely the father of all six of Sally Hemings’s children listed in Monticello records.

On the other hand, millennials and today’s students might be surprised by how carefully Gordon-Reed reasons about our predecessors and the world they lived in. She examines the DNA and oral records of Jefferson’s offspring but sees Jefferson in human terms rather than a political icon and tries to figure out what he must have been thinking. She does not support removing Jefferson statues because she believes he is the essential American founder who cannot be removed and forgotten without leaving a hole in our history.

Second, I suggest that MU add another statue to Francis Quadrangle to balance our historical understanding of the neglect of African American accomplishments. There are lots of alternatives, including Frederick Douglas, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Phillis Wheatley, Langston Hughes, or more regional notable figures such as Lloyd Gaines, Annie Fisher, Scott Joplin or Lucile Bluford.

I prefer Frederick Douglass because he is the equal of Jefferson in breadth and depth of intellect, in articulation of democratic principles and in political accomplishments. I like the symbolism of them being linked together by the Fourth of July.

Additionally, Jefferson and Douglass both experienced public criticism for their personal lives. I imagine a statue of Douglass seated on a bench next to Jefferson as if they are conversing about their roles in American history.

Organizing a campus-wide reflection about Jefferson’s legacy and commissioning a companion statue for the Quad can be accomplished in one of several ways. MU President Mun Choi could reappoint and refocus the Task Force on Contextualization of the Thomas Jefferson Statue to lead the effort. Or the several administrative and academic offices at MU devoted to diversity, race education and democracy could be asked to work together to lead a campus “One Read” program and discussion. Or a variety of student groups activated by racial justice issues since 2015 could embrace a specific project of the overall goal of pushing the MU community in understanding our past. Or the Jefferson Club, the initiator and funder of the Jefferson statue that was installed back in 2001, might take up the challenge of assisting in MU’s public reexamination of Jefferson’s legacy.

Jefferson personifies the meandering and enduring history of American slavery as well as of our grand democratic aspirations. We cannot understand America today without struggling with that history. MU can set a standard for how public higher education struggles with that history.

Amanda Gorman’s Inauguration Day poem reminds us of Phillis Wheatley’s works

David Webber, February 6, 2021

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) a poet during the American Revolutionary Era, often referred to as the mother of African American literature, is someone I knew I should learn about, but I never made the time. Even when I saw her statute in 2018 as one of three women honored in Boston Women’s Memorial, the other two being Abigail Adams and Lucy Stone, I did not follow up on my intentions to learn more about Wheatley.

Amanda Gorman, the 22-year-old who performed her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the recent presidential inauguration, and who will recite a poem at the Super Bowl, so motivated me. When Gorman read in her poem “a skinny black girl, descended from slaves,” I noticed her distinctive head covering, I thought, “she looks like the Phillis Wheatley statute in Boston.” This time I made the time and spent several days since Jan. 20 learning about Wheatley. I was overdue.

Wheatley was kidnapped into the slave trade from western Africa (Senegal) when she was seven or eight in 1761 and brought without a family to America across the Middle Passage. She was purchased by the John and Suzanna Wheatley family, hence her last name, in Boston. Having arrived on the schooner “Phillis” she now had a first name. Wheatley was taught English, and later Greek and Latin, and the Bible by Suzanna Wheatley and her daughter. Phillis was apparently of great intellect and took to studying the Bible and the poetry of Alexander Pope, among others.

Wheatley published her first poem at 14 years old about two fisherman who escaped drowning at sea. She gained more popularity for a poem two years later about praising the Rev. George Whitfield, one of the best-known orators of his days and became recognized as the first African American women to be published in the United States.

A collection of poems was held from publication due to doubts that Wheatley was the true author. On Oct. 8, 1772, a group of 18 of Boston’s educated and important men, including a signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock, questioned her about her authorship and intellect. The event was a trial of an African American’s intellectual abilities, eventually receiving the attention of Thomas Jefferson who speculated about Black intellectual inferiority in his “Notes of the State of Virginia” (1785). The young poet reportedly overwhelming impressed the 18 men and all signed a letter of authenticity. Her book, “Poems on various subjects, religious and moral,” brought her international fame, which probably contributed to her being granted her freedom. Tragically, due partly to her new found independence, the death of John and Suzanna Wheatley, and the economic instability of her husband, she died in poverty at the age of 31 in 1784.

At Biden’s Inauguration, Gorman mentioned in her poem that she “was reciting for a president.” Well, so did Wheatley. She sent her poem “To His Excellency, General Washington” to the future president on Oct. 26, 1775, who responded and met with her in Boston on Feb. 28, 1776. In addition to indicating the breadth of Wheatley’s reputation as a poet, the poem was memorable for being the first written reference to “Columbia.”

Before the Civil War, “the goddess Columbia” was a popular symbol of the American colonies and is the root of the “District of Columbia” and the “Statute of Columbia” atop the United States Capitol as well as the statute in our “Scales of Justice.” “Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean” was a popular song in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In contemporary African American literature, Wheatley is known and hotly debated for an eight-line poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” that begins “’Twas mercy that brought me from my Pagan lands.” Some think the poem is ironic and sarcastic, some say it is duplicitous. Some say it is an example of what W.E.B. Dubois termed “double consciousness” that African Americans developed in order to survive in a white society.

Gorman stands not only on the shoulders of Phillis Wheatley in speaking to the public, and to presidents, with hope and history but was preceded by two recent African American women as inaugural poets: Maya Angelou who read “On the Pulse of the Morning” at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration and Elizabeth Alexander reading “Praise Song for the Day” at Barack Obama swearing-in in 2009.

After my recent, and brief, immersion in Wheatley’s life and work, I went to the internet and found several confirmations that I am a late appreciator of her work. A Google search returns over 600,000 items. In 2005, one of her letters sold at auction for $253,000. Additionally, several other observers have noticed the similarity between Gorman and Wheatley.

Perhaps Gorman’s popularity, especially after the Super Bowl, might reignite the public’s interest in Wheatley, public poetry, the African American oral tradition, and forgotten African American accomplishments throughout our history.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.