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Bo, the Obamas’ Portuguese Water Dog, Dies

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Bo, the Portuguese water dog who became the first presidential pet in the Obama White House, romping in the halls of power, died on Saturday.

Bo’s death was announced by Michelle Obama and former President Barack Obama, who said the family had lost “a true friend and loyal companion.”

Mrs. Obama said Bo, who was 12, had cancer.

“For more than a decade, Bo was a constant, gentle presence in our lives — happy to see us on our good days, our bad days, and everyday in between,” Mr. Obama wrote on Twitter. “He tolerated all the fuss that came with being in the White House, had a big bark but no bite, loved to jump in the pool in the summer, was unflappable with children, lived for scraps around the dinner table, and had great hair.”

Bo arrived at the White House as a 6-month-old puppy in April 2009, a gift from Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and his wife, Victoria, to the first children, Malia and Sasha Obama. The girls named the dog Bo because their cousins had a cat with the same name and because Mrs. Obama’s father was nicknamed Diddley, after the musician Bo Diddley.

Right away, the dog was an object of national fascination, the latest in a long line of four-footed White House occupants that included President Lyndon B. Johnson’s beagles, Him and Her, President Ronald Reagan’s King Charles spaniel, Rex, President Bill Clinton’s cat, Socks, and President George W. Bush’s Scottish terrier, Barney.

President Biden resumed the tradition in January with his two German shepherds, Champ and Major, after President Donald J. Trump’s term ended as the first in decades without any pets living full time at the residence. Major was recently sent for training after a series of biting episodes.

Bo was known for cavorting on the South Lawn in front of the White House press corps, barking at news conferences and attracting fan mail from children across the country.

He also posed with his tongue out for an official White House portrait and was the subject of a children’s book, “Bo, America’s Commander in Leash,” written by Naren Aryal and illustrated by Danny Moore.

In 2013, Bo was joined at the White House by a second Portuguese water dog, Sunny, after Mrs. Obama said that Bo needed more interaction with other dogs.

Mrs. Obama said that although Bo was originally supposed to be a companion for Malia and Sasha, “We had no idea how much he would mean to all of us.” She said the dog had been a “constant, comforting presence in our lives,” sauntering into their offices “like he owned the place, a ball clamped firmly in his teeth.”

He was there for the traditional Easter egg roll on the South Lawn and when the pope came to visit, she said.

After Malia and Sasha went to college, Bo helped the couple adjust to life as empty nesters, Mrs. Obama said in a post on Instagram that was signed “Michelle, Barack, Malia, Sasha, and Sunny.”

“This past year, with everyone back home during the pandemic, no one was happier than Bo,” she wrote. “All his people were under one roof again — just like the day we got him.”


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Catholic bishops celebrate triumph of spite over faith as they attack the second Catholic president

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Joe Biden is only the second Catholic president in U.S. history. He is also a practicing Catholic who clearly feels deeply about his faith, taking time to attend services regularly even in the midst of the busiest circumstances. Biden actively seeks out a place to attend mass both before and after major decisions in his life, both when he is in the limelight, and when he is at his most alone. The church was, and is, key to his acceptance of the massive tragedies in his life, and his religious practices have sustained him at times where it would have been easy to surrender to despair.

Joe Biden is not just a member of the Catholic church, he is someone for whom that identity as a Catholic, is a lynchpin. It’s not just his history, it’s his core. Saying that Biden “goes to church regularly” is deeply underselling the extent to which he has committed himself to his faith all his life.

And so, knowing this, the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States are now setting out to hurt Biden—and defying the Pope to do it.

As The New York Times reports, 74% of American bishops voted to deny communion—a fundamental aspect of the Catholic faith—to politicians who uphold women’s rights. This move, which is clearly directly aimed at Biden, is little short of expulsion. In times past, denial of the holy eucharist has been a statement of profound distance from the church. It’s one step away from being turned away at the door. A scarlet letter. And the bishops are clearly ecstatic at their ability to snub this man who, all his life, has leaned on the church and made his faith a central tenant of his actions.

That, in doing so, they are also sidelining not just a majority of Americans, but a majority of practicing Catholics, was surely only a minor factor into their decision. That they are actively underscoring a patriarchal claim over women likely never entered their minds.

To underline the pure political play being made here, the bishops will hold off on conducting the final vote on this action until closer to the midterm elections. That will allow them to put their decision on a nice platter and hand it over to Republicans so that they can declare—as numerous right-pundits already have—that Biden is not a “real Catholic” or a “real Christian”. Because, in 2021, you can only be a real Catholic, if you are a real, Trump-following Republicans. 

The bishops have no illusion that their actions will cause President Biden to revise his position around abortion. They’re doing this expressly to hurt him. Yes, they’re doing it to harm Democrat’s chances politically, but even more they’re taking this action to hurt Joe Biden deeply, personally, where he lives. In both of these things, they may succeed. And then they will cherish how intensely they have caused harm to a good Catholic, and to many other good women and good men, and feel themselves justified. They will clutch that feeling to themselves and feel warmed by it.

Because 74% of American bishops demonstrated conclusively that the most important feature of their position, is the ability to act out of spite for their own satisfaction—no matter who it harms, or what damage it does to the church. 

And it will do damage. Of course the bishops will get immediate and sustained approval from conservative Catholics who will rush to give them a big high-five for smacking down that oh-so-pious, not-a-real-Christian, Biden. Yeah, buddy, they will show him

And the next Gallup poll will show that membership has dropped. Again. And Gallup will talk about how younger people just don’t have the commitment to church. Again. And the bishops will have a conference and figure out who needs to be hurt next time.


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Amazon is intentionally burning through warehouse workers, but it may not be sustainable forever

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Hourly warehouse employees also have few chances for advancement—again by design, a former human resources vice president for the company told the Times. The internal promotion rate for these workers is less than half that of Walmart, with Amazon preferring to hire “wicked smart” college graduates in management roles. And—surprise!—at JFK8 that and other policies translated to an hourly workforce that was 60% Black or Latino, while management was more than 70% white or Asian. Black workers were also almost 50% more likely to be fired than white workers.

Amazon really is treating people as disposable, bringing them in and burning them out. Partly that seems to come from Bezos’ contempt for workers. But HuffPost’s Dave Jamieson also highlights how this helps insulate Amazon from worker organizing efforts. 

High turnover is “definitely one way to avoid a union,” former JFK8 worker Chris Smalls, now launching an independent organizing effort at the facility, told Jamieson. That plays out in the development of solidarity between workers, the trust workers feel in each other that enable them to talk freely about things management wouldn’t want them talking about, the long-term investment workers feel in improving the workplace … and, very concretely, in the mechanics of getting a union representation election.

To get the National Labor Relations Board to set up an election, organizers have to have signed union cards for 30% of workers, but in reality, organizers need far more than that because some initial support may disappear in the face of an anti-union campaign by management.

“At an Amazon warehouse, high turnover means a union would be losing cards every day as workers leave and new employees unfamiliar with the campaign replace them,” Jamieson writes. “Even if the union manages to win an election, high turnover could hurt its position at the bargaining table if some of the most active organizers have quit or been fired. And churn could even help the employer purge the union from the facility by convincing newer workers to decertify it.”

Bezos is stepping down as Amazon’s chief executive soon, and on his way out he has made sounds about improving Amazon’s employment practices, vowing the company would become “Earth’s best employer.” That is … unlikely. But, the Times pointed out, Amazon’s turnover is so extreme that “multiple current and former Amazon executives fear there simply will not be enough workers. In the more remote towns where Amazon based its early U.S. operations, it burned through local labor pools and needed to bus people in.” Reforming its employment practices enough that the company can keep a workforce in place for the long run may be a necessity at some point. And that, in the most optimistic scenario, could also be an opening for organizers.


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Juneteenth is a new holiday for many Americans. For my family, it’s always been personal

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I’ve covered some of my research successes in other stories, like 2020’s “Juneteenth: We’re still on the road to freedom and justice,” but I have not shared many of my thoughts about Texas.

Texas has a strange history when it comes to Black folks and enslavement, as documented here in the “Free Blacks” entry in the Handbook of Texas, from the Texas State Historical Association.

As of 1792 the Black and mulatto population constituted 15 percent of the 2,992 people living in Spanish Texas. Within the Spanish empire, the legal status of free Blacks resembled that of the Indian population. The law required free Blacks to pay tribute, forbade them to carry firearms, and restricted their freedom of movement. In practice Spanish officials ignored such restrictions, often encouraging the manumission of slaves. The small number of Spanish subjects in Texas and the vast distances between settlements also brought about the intermarriage of Whites, Blacks, and Indians. While most free Blacks in Texas before 1800 were born there, thereafter an increased emigration to Texas of free Blacks and some escaped slaves from the southern United States began to take place. After the Mexican War of Independence (1821), the Mexican government offered free Blacks full rights of citizenship, allowing land ownership and other privileges. Mexico accepted free Blacks as equals to White colonists. Favorable conditions for free Blacks in Texas in the 1830s led one noted abolitionist, Benjamin Lundy, to seek authorization for the establishment of a Black colony from the United States. While the Mexican government expressed interest in the idea, opposition from Whites in Texas and the United States precluded its implementation. Free Blacks, as did other frontiersmen, continued to emigrate to Texas seeking an opportunity for advancement and a better life. […]

The Constitution of the Republic of Texas designated people of one-eighth African blood as a separate and distinct group, took away citizenship, sought to restrict property rights, and forbade the permanent residence of free Blacks without the approval of the Congress of the Republic of Texas. Interracial marriages were also legally prohibited. Ironically, local communities and legislators that favored the new provisions often did not want them enforced within their districts. Documents show that prominent Whites were known to intercede on behalf of free Blacks in danger of being prosecuted by the new regulations. A stricter law passed in 1840, which gave free Blacks two years to leave Texas or risk being sold into slavery, was effectively postponed by President Sam Houston. […]

After annexation, the legislature passed stricter laws governing the lives of free Blacks. These new laws called for harsh punishments usually reserved only for slaves, including branding, whipping, and forced labor on public works. In 1858 the legislature even passed a law that encouraged free Blacks to reenter slavery voluntarily by allowing them to choose their own masters. The increased restrictions and the rise in White hostility resulted in a virtual halt to additional free Black immigration to Texas and may have caused a reduction in the Texas population of free Blacks. The United States census reported 397 free Blacks in Texas in 1850 and 355 in 1860, though there may have been an equal number of free Blacks not counted.

That timeline became particularly relevant when my search for my first cousin’s Texan family hit that brick wall. They do not appear in any listing of free Blacks, therefore, they must have been enslaved. I knew that Anna Gibson was listed in the Freedman’s Bank Records as born in Texas around 1823. Her daughter Idella was listed as born in 1861, also in Texas. My uncle Louis—Idella’s grandson—said she was born in Galveston. That’s all I know. My family is luckier than most Black folks, as we have a picture of Idella when she was an adult.

Idella Gibson

What is clear from that photograph is that Idella has white ancestry. What does that mean for Anna, the enslaved woman who was Idella’s mother?

We may never know. But we do know that many children were born into slavery and kept enslaved, in spite of having white fathers. We also know that enslaved Black women were raped and bred for profit. Further, we know that in parts of the South, mixed-race Black women were often kept as concubines.

Anna got out of Texas as soon as she could and moved to Maryland, where she opened a sewing school. She was listed in the 1870 census there.

Now comes the hard part: Imagining her life under the yoke of enslavement. None of it is pretty. None of it fits the fairy tales offered to white children about “happy darkies” on the plantation lazing their days away. Nowhere in those fabrications are those “massa’s offspring” mentioned.

As some of you may know, the Black community has problems with “colorism,” an artificially developed hierarchy based on light-skin and European hair texture. On the other hand, and less discussed, is the ugly underbelly to which those fair complexions point; realities which often don’t get openly talked about in families, or are tales only shared in whispers among the elders. This unspoken “downside” of being light-skinned continues to this day. I have a friend who was much fairer than her parents. She was dubbed “trick baby” in the school yard, the other kids sneeringly insinuating that her mama had been a sex worker impregnated by a white “trick.”

There are thousands upon thousands of Black families with ancestors who were light-skinned with European-textured hair. Most have long opted to claim Native American heritage to explain away that great-grandma whose “hair was so long she could sit on it.” In most of those cases, DNA testing disproved those family legends. Think of the “why” for these narratives: Few people want to loudly proclaim that their great-grandma was repeatedly raped and brutalized by her owner (or the overseer), which is why Grandma looked like she did.

In a quick check of the 1880 census (using my Ancestry.com database) I find 1,017,015 people listed as “mulatto,” and 5,572,280 listed as Black; the 1870 census listed 629,806 “mulatto” people, and 4,140,145 people as Black. Census takers weren’t “race” scientists, of course; they weren’t offering DNA tests to prove ancestry. Instead, they simply eyeballed a person and determined whether they were or were not a “full-blooded” Black person, based solely on their skin color, facial features, and hair texture. 

In 2014, I wrote the following in “The ‘other’ U.S. slave trade”:

I once wrote about myself that “I am the product of a bicentennial of breeding farms.” Some of my enslaved ancestors looked whiter than many “white” people, like my great-grandfather Dennis Williams.

My great grandfather - Loudoun County VA - born to enslaved Hannah Carter, father - white man
My great grandfather, Dennis Williams, who was born to an enslaved mother, Hannah Carter, and freed

They were not descendants of Irish indentured women who had children with Black indentured men. They were born out of the rape of their mothers by overseers and/or owners.

In Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History, Gregory Smithers takes on the naysayers:

For over two centuries, the topic of slave breeding has occupied a controversial place in the master narrative of American history. From nineteenth-century abolitionists to twentieth-century filmmakers and artists, Americans have debated whether slave owners deliberately and coercively manipulated the sexual practices and marital status of enslaved African Americans to reproduce new generations of slaves for profit.

In this bold and provocative book, historian Gregory Smithers investigates how African Americans have narrated, remembered, and represented slave-breeding practices. He argues that while social and economic historians have downplayed the significance of slave breeding, African Americans have refused to forget the violence and sexual coercion associated with the plantation South. By placing African American histories and memories of slave breeding within the larger context of America’s history of racial and gender discrimination, Smithers sheds much-needed light on African American collective memory, racialized perceptions of fragile black families, and the long history of racially motivated violence against men, women, and children of color.

This is an ugly history we cannot ignore. So today, though I’ll celebrate Juneteenth, I’ll continue to think about Anna from Galveston. Maybe one day I’ll luck out and find someone who also has her in their family tree, and find out not just more of her story, but more of my kin.

The nightmare of enslavement finally ended on this day in 1865, but those of us descended from those who were freed back then have not all had a happy ending. In fact, the persecution faced by Black Americans has not ended at all.

We are simply in another chapter of a book that is not yet finished. We will, however, get to see the impact of Juneteenth being made a federal holiday; it passed the Senate via unanimous consent on June 15, passed in the House on the 16th with a vote of 415 to 14, and President Biden signed it into law on the 17th.

It’s been a long haul to get to this point in the road, and we still have farther to go. This victory along the way should lift our spirits and move us forward.


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