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Mayberry, Grace and Frankie, Left-Handed

CBS Sunday Morning / Jane Pauley
The Truth Network Radio
August 14, 2022 3:43 pm

Mayberry, Grace and Frankie, Left-Handed

CBS Sunday Morning / Jane Pauley

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August 14, 2022 3:43 pm

Guest host: Tracy Smith. In our cover story, Rita Braver looks at how left-handed people cope in a right-handed world. Plus: Ted Koppel visits a town that reinvented itself as Andy Griffith's "Mayberry"; Tracy Smith sits down with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, stars of the Netflix series "Grace and Frankie"; Martha Teichner delves into the story behind a new opera about a Muslim enslaved in America; And Conor Knighton checks out how a small town in Illinois got on the map by dreaming VERY big.

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Jim Daly
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CBS Sunday Morning
Jane Pauley
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J.D. Greear

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Jane Polly is off this weekend. I'm Tracy Smith, and this is Sunday Morning. The good old days. For many of us, that's a time not so long ago when life was simpler, slower, a little kinder with television comedies like the Dick Van Dyke Show, the Beverly Hillbillies, and of course, the Andy Griffith Show.

Andy and his peaceful hometown of Mayberry left the world of primetime TV in 1968. Yet, would you believe that decades later, loyal fans continue to flock to the North Carolina town that claims Mayberry's legacy? A town where, as Ted Koppel will tell us, there's a fine line between fiction and reality.

Those guns aren't real, of course, and this is just a replica of a Hollywood set for a television series that went off the air more than 50 years ago. So what is it that keeps tourists flocking to Mount Airy, North Carolina by the hundreds of thousands every year? I'll give you a hint. A hit on a Sunday morning. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin have been acting together and breaking the rules together for more than four decades, and they're not about to stop now.

Because we are sick and tired of being dismissed by people like you. Mic drop. Seems everything these two touch turns to gold, especially the Netflix series Grace and Frankie, but their careers are more about love than money. She gives all her money away.

I mean this jacket, I've seen this at least 10 times. Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda on their long-running show and their forever friendship. You may not have noticed that yesterday was International Left Handers Day, but we think it's perfect timing for Rita Braver's appreciation of lefties everywhere. Connor Knighton visits a small town that dares to think big, very big, and a preview of a new opera with Martha Teichner. It's a Sunday morning for the 14th of August 2022 and we'll be back in a moment.

As we mentioned, Southpaws are being celebrated the world over this weekend. Our legendary lefty Rita Braver takes a closer look at life on the other hand. This could be any gift and gadget shop. There's scissors, notebooks, and pens. But these items and scores of other products in this store are specifically designed for left-handed people.

Take this pastry server. The sharp cutting edge is on the left side. The correct side we like to say. You may recall the leftorium from the Simpsons.

Wow, what an icebreaker. Left-handed ledges. Now I can ride all the way to the edge. But lefties in San Francisco is the real thing. So neat.

Opened by Margaret Majula in 2008. And guess what? You are not a lefty.

No, no, I can't even fake it. I'm terrible with my left hand. No surprise. Lefties, including your faithful correspondent, make up only an estimated 10 percent of the world's population. And Majula understands that we sometimes feel, well, left out. So some of your best friends are left-handed. Of course, we lefties do have greatness in our ranks. Artists, actors, musicians, techies, and eight of 45 presidents, including President Bill Clinton. We seem to be overrepresented in certain fields.

Maybe we're politics, safe cracking, I don't know. Has it ever impeded you? No, I don't think it's ever impeded me. When I started studying the way the brain functions, it made me wonder whether it really was a sign of being a little more creative and non-rational in the way you think. And I have no conclusions on it.

Even about yourself? No, I don't. So there has been this myth that lefties are more creative. Let's kill it together. Here and now. But there is some research that shows that left-handed people organize thoughts in a different way and tasks in a different way.

Absolutely. And that is really mysterious. Author and journalist David Wallman was so intrigued by the mysteries and myths surrounding left-handers like him that he spent a year traveling the world to write a book about the hand often associated with the devil. The very word left comes from the Old English list, meaning weak or worthless. The Latin word for left is sinister. So that's really right out on the table. Gauche in French, which also means kind of crude and undesirable. You should certainly not be eating with the left hand in countries where you don't have utensils.

Why is that? Well, you know, it's not the cleanest dinner table talk. But the answer to that is that in poorer parts of the world, people are trying to keep separate which hand they eat with and which hand they clean themselves with.

You mean after using the bathroom, so to speak. Exactly. And older Americans may still remember when writing with the left hand was a no-no. There were school teachers who were trying to whack this behavior out of them.

And in other parts of the world, the punishments were very severe for following what is just a natural tendency. Lefties know all the jobs. The left-handed compliment.

And more recently, swipe left for reject. And there's always having two left feet. Still, many lefties are great athletes, from quarterbacks to tennis players. In baseball, I think it definitely is a good thing. Sean Doolittle is not out in left field. He's won in a long line of famous southpaw pitchers. In 2019, he was the closer, helping the Washington Nationals win Game 1 of the World Series. I got brought in in the eighth inning when they had a left-handed hitter up. And so I got the final out of the eighth inning, and I finished the ninth inning, and we got the win. Into left center field. Robles is there, and the Nationals take Game 1. One of the advantages seems to be that lefty pitchers are good not just at getting left-handed batters out, but also right-handed batters, because righties aren't used to facing people like you so much.

Right. It's just a different look, because in baseball, there are much, much fewer left-handed pitchers, so the ball's coming in on a different angle. But like most human beings, left or right-handed, Doolittle is also a bit ambidextrous. I play golf right-handed. I kick with my right foot.

I'm pretty good with scissors. Which hand do you bat with? I just realized this. I swing a bat lefty, but I swing a golf club righty.

That's pretty weird. So much is weird about being left-handed. Scientists know it's at least partially genetic, but they've never been able to figure out exactly how it's passed on. Now, a recent study by scientists at the University of Oxford using genetic data from some 400,000 United Kingdom residents has revealed important new information.

Dr. Akira Weiberg. We compared the differences in DNA sequence between a very large group of left-handers and a large group of right-handers. And what that showed was that there were four regions in the genome where the two groups were significantly different on average. Professor Gwen Duos says the study found some very preliminary connections between handedness and development of certain diseases. The proportion is ever so slightly higher for schizophrenia in left-handed people. And that's exactly the opposite in Parkinson's disease. So if you are left-handed, you've got a slightly lesser risk of developing Parkinson's disease. But again, we are talking about very, very small effects. Still, Professor Dominic Furness says the discovery could yield important information on devising new treatments. What are the important structures within the brain that are not working properly in these diseases?

Why are they not working properly at a very fundamental level? The study also found some differences between left and right-handers in the brain's white matter, the material through which messages pass to the central nervous system. So that's really connecting the different parts of your brain that are enabling language. The study does say that your findings raise the possibility that left-handed people have an advantage when it comes to performing verbal tasks.

This is really a theory that we have that requires scientific testing, I would say. Sometimes I feel a little bit different than everyone else. Youth psychologist Charlotte Resnick, a lefty herself, welcomes the idea of more scientific research. It's helpful to educate others who are right-handed because it's really a little tough to be left-handed in the right-handed world sometimes. But the young lefty she introduced us to seemed to take it all in stride. I don't pay attention to that.

Even the ink stains. That's the only bad thing I've noticed about being lefty, is that you always get it on your hand. It's very annoying. Still, it's something that you should be proud of even though you're different. What would you say to parents who think, oh gosh, my child would just do better because the world is right-handed? Aye. And what would lefty expert David Wollman do if somebody came to you and said, okay, I can magically make you right-handed like everybody else?

Me? Yeah, what would you say? I would say, are you out of your mind? Right. No, never.

No, no, and no. Me either. Cheers to lefties.

Cheers to lefties. Now, I suppose me and you both wanted that apple, and I grabbed it and wouldn't give you half of it. Now, how would you feel? I wouldn't mind. You wouldn't?

There's a worm in it. The Andy Griffith Show aired for eight seasons here on CBS back in the 60s. Andy, Opie, and the gang were a huge hit with viewers back then, and it turns out they still are.

Ted Koppel has one of our Sunday best, his visit last summer to North Carolina. That tall, amiable sheriff and his little boy, Opie, heading to a fishing hole on the outskirts of Mayberry, North Carolina, were actually strolling along a lake in Beverly Hills, California. Ron Howard, he's the actor who played Opie, is now one of Hollywood's top directors. Most of the other stars, Andy Griffith, Don Knotts, who played his deputy, Barney Fife, and the actors who played Aunt Bea and Floyd the Barber, they've all passed on. After all, it's been 54 years since Andy left the show, so it may come as something of a surprise to learn that Mayberry is doing just fine. Even though its actual name is Mount Airy, and its only genuine link to the Andy Griffith show is that Andy was born and grew up here. Andy Griffith, God bless him. If he had not been born in this particular little town, we wouldn't be standing here having that conversation.

Enjoy your tour today. Randy Collins is president and CEO of the Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, and he's recalling when North Carolina's tobacco and textile industries had the stuffing knocked out of them. After the mills closed, I think a lot of the town fathers and the business owners got together and said, hey, you know, what about this Mayberry thing? Maybe we can do something with it. And businesses were born or reinvented. It's a little bizarre, isn't it?

It went off the air. Right. More than 50 years ago.

Yes, sir. It captured a reality that never was. True. Mayberry is fictitious. Everyone knows that, except maybe some of the rabid fans of the show. They believe it's real.

And let it be said, the town isn't doing a whole lot to undermine the illusion. Stop by at Wally's Filling Station, and you can get a ride around town in a vintage Ford Galaxy squad car. These days, there's a whole fleet of them carting tourists around town. We are constantly looking at other ways that we can promote the community, because we know the Mayberry generation won't be here forever. But now with streaming television, Andy will be forever with us, and we hope a younger generation will pick it up. As if on cue, the Foster family from Pomeroy, Ohio, showed up. Watch it four hours Monday through Friday.

It's no exaggeration to say that this recreation verges for the Fosters on being a national monument. You watch the Andy Griffith Show four hours a day? More than that.

What do you mean more than that? It's on sometimes early in the morning. Aren't you afraid that after a month or two of watching four hours or more a day, that you're going to turn his little brain to mush? Oh no.

No. No one comes to good wholesome shows. Tell me why you like it so much. Good clean comedy. Yeah, good clean comedy.

Has morals, values. You don't see that a lot today in TV. Down on Main Street where tourists peek into Floyd's Barbershop or grab a bite at the snappy lunch. We drove from Louisiana for the famous pork chop sandwich. That is so good. You hear the same theme. Yeah, I'm missing out on this.

Kind of messy, but it's delicious. I think the generations now long for that simplicity of the episodes of Andy being real with his son about stealing or doing the right thing. And as a godless society that we see today is longing for simple life.

Back when neighbors were neighbors and they provided for everybody else. What do you see, Mr. Koppel? Let me flip it back on you.

I know you're doing this, but what do you see? What you're seeing is true of certain people. If you were black in the 60s, things were not all that good for you.

It's true. If you were a Vietnam vet coming back, things were not all that good for you. Down in the valley, valley so low. What actually happened during the years the program first played? The world seems to have veered off, at least for the moment.

At least for the moment, the collision course toward global annihilation. From Dallas, Texas, the flash President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Allied casualties are high. 232 Americans killed. We the Negro citizen of Dallas County are marching today from Selma to Montgomery. Those events never intruded inside Mayberry's imaginary town limits. Can you give me a ride home, Paul?

Oh, I can't, son. Barney's got the squad car and he's off on a very important mission. Mayberry is where more than 30 million Americans a week went to escape reality. Which is why it's strange to find so many people half a century later searching for what made America great in a copy of a town that never was. You folks gonna have to stand up off the curb so you gonna get your toes run over. And as Randy Collins of the Chamber of Commerce acknowledges, African Americans were all but invisible on The Andy Griffith Show.

There were very few speaking parts. One. Okay, Opie, take over quarterback position. Okay, let's go. If you watch closely in the crowd scenes, I think Andy and others on the show pushed to make sure that there were people of color in the crowds.

But you have to look closely. Maggie Rosser is in her 90s now. She and her younger brother and sister were all born here, left, and returned. I moved back here, 19 and 73. So we wanted a sandwich and we went in. Here in Mount Airy. In our main street. And they served us, but we had to go out and eat.

They wouldn't let you sit. Right. So even in 1973. Yes. Or a little bit after. A little bit after.

Yes. Bobby Scales, also born and raised in Mount Airy, has a clear memory of race relations in the 60s. Blacks knew where they belong and whites knew where you belong too. Whites knew where you belong too, and everything was segregated. Black people didn't exist.

Evelyn Scales Thompson is Bobby Scales' twin. In making those programs, it was for basically the white population. She believes she understands the ongoing popularity of the program. It's appealing to people who are not familiar with small towns. And what Andy has projected is a quiet, peaceful town. With everybody happy and everybody's looking for peace.

So Mayberry, Mount Airy, good place to live? It's a good place. If it were not home, I would not be here.

Unwrap that for me. I mean, you know, your home is where you make it. Yes, but not where you were born and your memories. And family. But if your memories are mostly memories of being treated as the lesser, why would you want to stay?

Well, I wasn't treated as a lesson in my family. I have family history. Our property is there and memories of childhood is still very strong.

I'm very satisfied at being retired in the place where I grew up. Place where I grew up, somehow Mount Airy becomes more complex with each conversation. Yes, indeed. Mount Airy is a place where fantasy and reality intersect. If I wave the political thermometer across the forehead of Mount Airy, the people here believe that Joe Biden is the legitimate president? That's a good question. Our former president had a lot of support here.

If you took a poll, that would probably not lean in our current president's favor. As for the visitors, for 20 bucks a pop, they get to ride on a trolley car tour of Mount Airy. Sometimes a fellow in a deputy's uniform, and he does look a little like Barney Fife, rides along. The Elvis impersonator was an unexplained bonus, as was the entire crew from CBS Sunday Morning. Now, I know you came here to have a good time and not to talk politics, but let me just ask you, as a matter of curiosity, how many of you think we had a fair election? I saw two hands go up, so is it fair to say the rest of you think that it was not a fair election? No, it wasn't. I don't think it was at all. Was it a fair election? By no means.

Because? I think there was a lot of voter fraud. It's now been proven. There's been people that's voted that's been dead 50 years. I think it's more the mail-in ballots. You don't know how much of those that were duplicated, triplicated, the whole bit.

Look how many dead people voted for. Five. One question.

It's a serious question, and I know you all will take it seriously. Tell me what you think happened on January 6th at Congress. They showed truckloads of people that they were bringing in for this. It was all staged, and that's how that started. They even showed pictures of us on the news about these vehicles coming in with all these BLM people.

Yes, sir. He was coming in to say... Disgrace our country. Whose fault was it? One writer did blame Donald Trump, but he was in a distinct moment. I think it was staged.

We visited a lot of the Trump rallies. I don't understand why they're focusing so much on that one issue when there's so many cities that are being burned down every day by protesters. That's supposed to be peaceful. But it's all focused on holding these two people. We're going to kill everybody that was there.

Yeah, yeah. Hang them in jail. We don't even watch news on TV. We've got to wait on them. We don't feel like that we're being told the truth. No.

And we find our truth in other ways, and I won't say what those other ways are, but I feel like we're not being told the truth because we're trying to be swayed in a direction that we know is not the right direction. I won't be offended. I've been a journalist all my life. When President Trump talked about the fact that he was a journalist, he said that he and President Trump talked about the press being the enemy of the people.

They are. And I love President Trump. I love that man.

I do. I just hope when this airs, it won't show southerners as a bunch of dumb idiots like so many parts of the country do. We have a lot of love in our hearts. We love our country.

We love our fellow man. And if the rest of the country felt like that, it would be a better place. Mr. President, this conversation about politics and division is what people come here to get away from. We don't care what color you are, we don't even care what your politics are. We just want to be good neighbors and treat everybody alike. And that's why they're coming here. That's what America should be. That's what America should be.

And when the script was written in Hollywood. We're going to get into things that you just kind of won't believe and we're not able to do in daytime television. So watch out, listen to Truce News wherever you get your podcasts. It's your good news on the go. Conner Knighton is on to something big. Really big. The sign on the outskirts of Casey, Illinois claims that 3,000 people live here. It's being generous.

The latest estimates are actually closer to 2,700, but the population is about the only thing in Casey that's smaller than you'd expect it to be. Oh, gosh, it's hard to get the whole thing in. I feel like I got to go.

I got to go low. Oh, there we go. Casey is home to the world's largest rocking chair and the world's largest pitchfork and the world's largest golf team. From the largest mailbox in the world, you can look out on a main street that could be in any American small town. Now you've lived here all your life?

All my life, yeah. What was it like when you started to see some of these businesses close down? Uh, it's heartbreaking because when you grow up in a small community, I mean, you know everybody. So you see a town just kind of slowly dying off. The factories that once employed workers here have all closed or moved away. They packed up and left for bigger cities, leaving locals like Jim Bolin trying to figure out how to revive the tiny town he loves.

Small towns, we have to try to come up and think outside the box to get people to come to our small communities and shop. It all started with this, the world's largest wind chime, erected in 2011 to drive tourists to Jim's wife's cafe. The wind chime, when I first built it, I said, that's my fishing lure. We cast it out to the interstate and tried to reel people into our little small town here to see what we got. And are you catching fish? Yes, we're catching fish. Bolin's experiment was such a success, he went on a giant building spree.

His family owns a pipeline business, so he had easy access to the raw materials. Did you start to feel like a man on a mission? Yeah, yeah. Because at this point I'm thinking, okay, what can we do for our town? So I'm looking at different businesses and trying to find something that would correlate with their business. Free of charge, he gave the local barbershop the world's largest barbershop pole. The candy store up the street got a whimsical pair of the world's largest wooden shoes. Do people come in just to see the shoes?

Yes, they come in to see the shoes and then they find out it's in a candy store, so it helps me as well. Bolin meticulously researches his creations and works with the Guinness World Record Organization to get them certified. Along the way, he's built plenty of large items around town that aren't necessarily record holders. This isn't even world's largest, this is just big. Yeah, it's just a big pencil. The collection of giant objects has put Casey, halfway between St. Louis and Indianapolis, on the map.

What's been your favorite so far? The rocking chair. From the rocking chair, you can see the license plates of all the cars that stop by. So those folks just shouted, they're from Pennsylvania? Yeah, they're from Pennsylvania. Do you get people from all over? All over.

California, Texas. And all these cars have given lifelong resident Jimmy Wilson a sight he thought he'd never see. The idea of a traffic jam in Casey, Illinois, is that a new concept? Oh my gosh, yes it is. And we have road rage now, because we have all these people coming to town and they're going so slow and gawking around that people get upset.

That's the kind of problem this town wants to have. I'm telling you, I can't believe it. It's the greatest thing that's ever happened here. When the flag goes up on the giant mailbox, it means someone's dropped in another letter.

A tourist, most likely, hoping to commemorate their trip. Just to know that people are excited about having a postmark from Casey, Illinois, on their mail. What's that feel like? It's pretty cool to see kids and people get excited about something that they're doing in Casey. It's just thrilling. It is. It's a special feeling. Yeah, big dreams and a bigger heart, all in a small town. You can't get out of your driveway without me.

How are you going to get to Mexico? Oh, hell to the yeah. Here, you're in charge of the carpools.

I regret this already. It's Sunday morning on CBS, and here again is Tracy Smith. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin still stirring things up in their 80s and talking about acting, age, and activism. We're making vibrators for women with arthritis.

Yes, vibrators. Brilliant. Grace! How could this not be entertaining? Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are Grace and Frankie, two feisty octogenarians who see old age not as a death sentence, but as a victory lap.

I'm an 80-year-old woman, and I've earned the right to take my sweet f***ing time. That's my girl. In the show, the two women became friends only after their husbands, played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, reveal that they're in love with each other. You mean you're gay? And this is who you're gay with? And getting married. Hilarity ensues. I don't want to be alone.

I'm here. But the show's humanity endures. We both have been told by women who have faced terrible things that watching Grace and Frankie has kept their head above water, given them hope. We're almost there! It's also given them a million laughs. Do we look like we're senile and can't remember anything?

Where is the car? Tomlin and Fonda actually are great friends in real life, but they're not exactly like the women they play. For instance, Jane Fonda doesn't drink nearly as much as Grace. Yeah, you stopped drinking.

And here's why. It's because even with one drink, like if I had a martini tonight, I would be at half-mast tomorrow. Now, that wasn't true when I was younger. But as you get older, I think alcohol affects you differently. And I only have so many tomorrows left.

I don't want to be at half-mast for any of them. Grace and Frankie premiered in 2015 and has just wrapped its seventh and final season, making it the longest-running original series on Netflix ever. Did either of you imagine starting out? Did either of you imagine starting out that at this point in your lives, you would have a steady gig like this? No. No, I didn't.

No. I was ready to go on the road again. A child was asked to describe the feeling of joy.

She said, it's mild and gentle on your hands. I worry that drugs have forced us to be more creative than we really are. Back in the 70s, Lily Tomlin's road act was her widely acclaimed one-woman show appearing nightly. I thought you liked that other kind of cake, that cake with the icing.

Police! Stop talking about that cake! When Jane went to see it, she just started working on an idea for a movie that would become 9 to 5. What did you think watching Lily on stage? I fell in love.

I mean, I was blown away. And when I left the theater that night, I said to myself, I'm not making a movie about secretaries unless Lily Tomlin is in it. And we know how that turned out. You mean she's a company spy? I wouldn't say that.

I would just say that if you want to gossip in the ladies room, I'd check first under the stalls for her shoes. Happy birthday, Myra. But you may not know that Lily Tomlin quit after the first day of shooting. I said, just you have to let me out of the movie.

You don't have to pay me anything. I thought I was just awful. I said, I'm just going to ruin the movie.

And then I saw the dailies from the second day because he couldn't draw up the papers quickly enough. And I thought, well, I'm pretty good. It's OK now. I think I'll just keep this part. They've been friends since, together on set and occasionally on the protest lines.

In 2019, the pair, who both have a long history of social activism, were arrested together on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during a demonstration over climate change. Forests are a key ally. Jane says political activism is, well, inner blood. I think a lot of that comes from my father. You know, as an actor, he either played an underdog or he played people who stood up for the underdog. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there.

Wherever there's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there. That was like in his DNA. He didn't like bullies.

He believed that we had to fight for people who were less fortunate. And, you know, I inherited that from him. That's in your DNA, too. Off screen, Henry Fondo was said to be an intensely private man.

And Jane says she inherited some of that, too. I'm my father's daughter. I could be in a car with him for three hours and he wouldn't say a word. So, you know, it's hard for me to be social. It's very hard for me to go to parties and all of that.

I'm not comfortable at all. So any excuse to be by myself is... You like that. Yeah. You force yourself to go out. Kind of, yeah. And when I do go out, I tend to find a corner and stay in one place the whole evening.

But she always seems to show up when she's needed. In fact, Jane Fonda started making her famed workout tapes to raise cash for the causes she believed in. And so I thought, well, maybe I should start a company that will fund what we're trying to do. And I had a very smart friend who said, never go into a business that you don't understand. But there was one thing I knew, which was exercise. She sold close to 17 million copies of her Feel the Burn tapes, and she gave most of her profits away. In fact, she still does. She does that.

She gives all her money away. I mean, this jacket, I've seen this at least 10 times. Still, her lifetime of exercise has had benefits beyond merely financial. At 84, she looks great.

In fact, they both do. I'm super conscious that I'm closer to death, and it doesn't really bother me that much. What bothers me is that my body is, you know, basically not mine. My knees are not mine, my hips are not mine, my shoulders not mine. You're looking at somebody who's only me from here up.

Oh, gross, I'm Francis. Truth is, what makes Jane and Lily and Grace and Frankie work is that fake joints and all, they seem so very real. The fact is, if you're alive and relatively healthy at an older, I mean, I'm almost 85, the fact that I'm still alive and working, wow, that's a lot of work. The fact that I'm still alive and working, wow, who cares if I don't have my old joints and I can't ski or bike or run anymore. You know, my father was six years younger than I am when he died, and he seemed so old. So, you know, age is not so important. It's health. You know, you can be really old at 60, and you can be really young at 85. Health.

That's beautifully put. Why are you laughing? I just like to hear her talk. Now, off to the famous Spoleto Festival. So Martha Teichner can tell us about one of this summer's highlights.

Eerie. Just as the curtain was about to rise on the opera based on his story, Omar Ibn Said, dead more than 150 years, appeared to blink, as if he had come back to life. And that was the point why the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, commissioned Omar, which had its world premiere, Memorial Day weekend, to let this real man speak for himself. This is an Omar that was inspired by the writings that he left us, the writings that were written in enslavement. Grammy winner and MacArthur Genius grant recipient, singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens, was asked to write the opera. Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim scholar kidnapped from his home in Africa and sold into slavery, left behind an autobiography in Arabic, a remarkable document, the only one of its kind known to exist.

It's as close to how I could get of putting a voice from the time of slavery. What did you know about Omar? I'd never heard of Omar. And I was like, who? What did you know about Omar Ibn Said? Nothing.

Giddens brought in composer Michael Ables. This is like yet another example of how our history is not being told to us. And suddenly looking at a whole story and part of American history in a different way than I had known before. Meaning that Omar Ibn Said was far from unique.

As many as 20 to 30 percent of the enslaved Africans brought to the United States were Muslim. Omar is a stand-in for tens of thousands of people largely forgotten by history. This is the original autobiography written by Omar Ibn Said in his hand.

It's hard not to say, wow. Written by himself in 1831. This translation is from the 1860s. And it starts out in the name of the merciful. He starts out with a Muslim prayer.

Lanesa Kitchener heads the African and Middle Eastern division of the Library of Congress, which acquired it in 2019. He moves on throughout the translation to speak of his story in Senegal. To speak of his story upon arrival to the United States. Omar writes that he was from Futa Toro in northern Senegal.

That he spent 25 years studying Islam. A big army came, he goes on, and took me. After a month and a half at sea, he arrived in Charleston, South Carolina.

Most likely here at Gadsden's Wharf. It was 1807, a critical year in the history of American slavery. In 1807, it's important to note that there was the act of the prohibition of the importation of slaves. Scholars argue that Omar ibn Said was perhaps on one of the last legal ships leaving West Africa, coming into the United States with the cargo of African individuals. He escaped a cruel owner.

And walked more than 200 miles to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he was caught and thrown in jail. What he did next astonished all who saw. So the story goes, he found a bit of charcoal and began writing verses from the Quran in Arabic on the walls of his cell. So these are Omar's own words, in his own handwriting, on these drapes. Right. Omar opens this act. Christopher Myers is the production designer for Omar the Opera. This dramatic moment that he is writing is still the central moment of the entire piece.

Because of what? Because it was illegal at the time, because it was a remarkable thing for a black man to be writing, to be speaking his culture, to kind of reveal the breadth and width of his humanity. James Owen, a prominent planter and politician, a devout Christian, is intrigued. He buys Omar, gives him special treatment, introduces him to Christianity. Omar may or may not have converted, willingly or not. He was enslaved. And everything that's known about his life, the question of his conversion, even what's in his autobiography, has to be seen through that lens. I felt like I was reading a document by someone who was watching his words.

What do you mean? I didn't feel his heart. I felt like he was hiding himself.

But without these pages, without being able to stare into his eyes, there would be no opera attempting to fill in the blanks. Omar will travel next to Los Angeles and multiple other cities after. Omar Ibn Said was thought to be 93 when he died in 1864, after the Emancipation Proclamation, before the end of the Civil War.

He was never freed. Why is Omar's story important to tell people? Because of everything we've been talking about, recovering our history and telling the full history of the United States in a way that includes what a multicultural country we've always been. I don't think I can say it better than Julie does in the opera, you know? Tell your story Omar, you must, or they will never know and we will fade into dust. That's it, we need to know their stories and then we know more about who we are now. I'm Tracey Smith. Thank you for listening and please join us when our trumpet sounds again next Sunday morning. For more from this week's conversation, follow the Takeout with Major Garrett on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-29 21:14:34 / 2023-01-29 21:31:25 / 17

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