Sometimes I come upon etymologies in the most unexpected places.
I attend a book group at my local public library. This is good for me because I read books that I never would have picked for myself. This month’s selection (on which I better get crackin’ and finish by Thursday) is Confessions of an Ugly Step-Sister, by Gregory Maguire, best known as the author of Wicked. What Wicked does for The Wizard of Oz, Confessions does to the Cinderella story. The tale is retold from the point of view of another character, giving the reader the sense that she definitely hasn’t gotten the whole story before. I never would never have considered this book without the group, but that’s because it hadn’t occurred to me that these books are classic examples of one type of intertextuality, where one author borrows (some say steals) and reshapes another author’s text to create a new work. I had a semester-long seminar on this in grad school. First, I want to say that I find the study of literary theory positively stultifying. It’s the most effective way I’ve ever experienced of totally depriving one of any joy in actually reading a book. However, in this case I found the concept very interesting, and I loved the books. Shredding them through the intertextuality chipper in the name of academic pursuit, not so much. But the books themselves were really fascinating.
I’m finding the same is true of Confessions. We all know the story well. As I read, I feel myself rotating the pieces of the story around in my head, trying to make them match up with the familiar elements. Sometimes they match, sometimes they’re close, and sometimes they’re nowhere near the same. A great study in the subjective nature of truth.
But to the etymology. The town where this skewed take on the Cinderella story takes place is the Dutch city of Haarlem, which looks an awfully lot like the name of a historically black neighborhood in New York City. Sure enough, on the New Netherland Institute website (“Exploring America’s Dutch Heritage”), I found information about the connection Since I knew that New York was originally called New Amsterdam, this toponym (place name) isn’t surprising, even though I had never heard its origin before.
I am thinking about this on Martin Luther King Day, and I look to see if anything of significance happened with Dr. King in Harlem, given that most of his work was in the south. Unfortunately, I discover that the connection that Harlem is best known for having with him is a sad one. In 1958, a mentally-unstable woman stabbed Dr. King in a Harlem department store. He was only 29 at the time. During emergency surgery at Harlem Hospital, doctors successfully removed the steel letter opener from his chest and saved his life.
After surviving this attempt, Dr. King lived another decade, leading voter registration drives, demonstrations, and protests in the fight for civil rights for African Americans. He was arrested more than 20 times, and he became a Nobel laureate. On August 28, 1963, less than five years before he would die by an assassin’s bullet, he gave the speech for which he is best remembered.
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