About Erika Harlitz-Kern

Erika Harlitz-Kern is a freelance writer, historian, and instructor at Florida International University. She has been published by The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and The Week, among others, and has appeared on The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. She his currently working on a book about the Devil's Bible.

A Moment in Time in the Season of Giving Thanks

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Today is the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend in the United States. The holiday is celebrated in commemoration of a meal shared by a group of the Wampanoag and a group of colonizers who arrived from England to avoid religious persecution. The colonizers were Puritans, a radical Protestant sect from England. We celebrate Thanksgiving as a secular holiday to bring us together as families and as Americans, but at the root of it, what we celebrate is the commemoration of the Puritan Pilgrim’s religious ritual of giving thanks.

In the spirit of this celebration, I will share with you a moment in time in the season of giving thanks.

I am writing this post on Friday November 24, 2022. The time is 10.35 am. The outside temperature is 82F (28C). It is cloudy.

I have had breakfast, and now I’m having a cup of coffee. I wasn’t very hungry for breakfast because I was still full from last night’s Thanksgiving meal, which I cooked myself. I had turkey thighs, roasted with salt, pepper, a cup of water, one bay leaf, and a twig of rosemary. I had mashed sweet potatoes seasoned with salt, pepper, cinnamon, and freshly grated nutmeg. I had a salad made from mixed greens, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, avocado, and pearled barley with a red-wine vinaigrette with salt, pepper, sage, and olive oil. I had cranberry sauce, sliced. For desert I had pumpkin pie with ice cream.

On the patio, I have a collection of golf balls that golfers have shot off the course. They are a warning to the golfers. If they come to close, I’ll take their balls.

I spent Thanksgiving Evening watching this week’s episode of IMPACT Wrestling, which is on AXS TV every Thursday night.

I am writing this post sitting in my apartment. I like this apartment. It has a patio that overlooks a golf course. It’s like a having a backyard that I’m not responsible for. Although meticulously pruned and heavily doused with pesticides, golf courses are homes for a lot of wildlife. The golf course next to my apartment is no different. From my patio I see ospreys, blue herons, night herons, egrets, red-tailed hawks, black vultures, red-bellied woodpeckers, blue jays, mockingbirds, starlings, crows, ibis, mourning doves, white-winged doves, racer snakes, and coyotes. On the patio, I have a collection of golf balls that golfers have shot off the course. They are a warning to the golfers. If they come to close, I’ll take their balls.

Today is a day off. I slept in late. It was nice.

This is what I am thankful for: family, good company, a place to live, food to eat, books to read, something to write on, something to write with.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Twitter on the Brink. Thoughts on the Loss of a Community

Photo of a muskrat with its nose to the short grass on the ground.
Muskrat.
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If you have been paying attention to the news lately, you are aware that billionaire Elon Musk has purchased Twitter and is running it into the ground. Lauded as an entrepreneurial genius and visionary of the future, Elon Musk’s behavior has once again revealed that the Emperor is indeed naked. As anyone with any kind of insight into business administration knows, it’s not the CEO who keeps a company running. It’s Brenda in Accounting and her Excel sheet.

Musk claims he bought Twitter to protect free speech, which he said was being suppressed on the platform. Once Twitter was his, he changed his approach to making the company profitable through massive lay offs and a business plan known as Throwing Shit on the Wall and See What Sticks.

Chaos, of course, ensued.

And not just any kind of chaos. Twitter chaos.

Twitter chaos is a particular type of anarchic and irreverent behavior where random people pick up on something equally as random and run with it. Through its retweet function and hashtags, Twitter is primed for this kind of behavior, which this time around was aimed at none other than the Naked Emperor himself, Elon Musk.

As hilarious these hi-jinx have made Twitter lately, there is a backside to all of this. Users are leaving the platform in droves, while Musk’s behavior are driving employees from the company in large numbers, either because they resign or are fired at will (some of them publicly on Twitter). The result is a glitchy platform where functions, safeguards, and ethics no longer exist.

While all of this is happening, Twitter users are taking stock of this bastard child among social media platforms. Nicknamed the Hell Site for its toxicity, the community without borders (and often without boundaries) that Twitter has offered is suddenly endangered. People and groups who have been denied a voice by mainstream society have made themselves heard on Twitter, and forced society to change as a result. Black Twitter, Disabled Twitter, LGBTQ+ Twitter, Jewish Twitter.

Twitter, with all its madness, is what kept us sane.

For academics, hashtags such as Medieval Twitter, Twitterstorians, and AcademicChatter have provided a community and a lifeline for those who are on the fringes of academia, such as minority scholars, contingent faculty, and exploited early career scholars on the tenure track.

Twitter, with all its madness, is what kept us sane.

I still remember the feeling I had when I joined in January 2013.

I was scared. That’s right. Twitter scared me. But in an enticing way. Similar to the first time I heard Guns N’ Roses. I put the record on (I don’t even remember what song. I think it was “Paradise City,” but I’m not sure), and when the music started, it felt dangerous. So dangerous that I had to look away from the speakers. But at the same time, the music was enticing, and I of course immediately became a huge G N’R fan.

Same thing with Twitter. I was familiar with Twitter because Stephen Fry and Eddie Izzard were on there, but creating my own account felt like stepping into the maelstrom. There were no rules on Twitter, it felt like. I understood that Twitter could hurt you because of the anarchy of the platform, and so my approach has always been one of caution. And since the platform algorithm favors engagement and engagement is driven by rage, I never garnered a large following. Which is okay. I can live with that.

Over the years, Twitter has given me a place to find and develop my voice, deprogram myself from the indoctrination of academia, learn from communities I am not part of but who I need to listen to.

Over the years, Twitter has given me a place to find and develop my voice, deprogram myself from the indoctrination of academia, learn from communities I am not part of but who I need to listen to. I have gotten jobs through Twitter. My first freelance job was at Book Riot, who I found on Twitter. I have found amazing author’s through Twitter. I have found books that inform me as a person and a scholar that I otherwise never would have heard of.

If this is the end of Twitter, Elon Musk will have done something unforgivable in destroying a platform that has engaged millions of people for more than a decade just because he could. But if this is the end of Twitter, we will regroup and find each other again. Communities form, thrive, and disappear. Sometimes naturally, sometimes through deliberate actions.

If this is the end of Twitter, I will miss it. It has been one helluva ride.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Living in Florida is Living with the Apocalypse

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There is this idea that Florida is a beautiful place. There are palm trees, golf courses, lawns, gardens, boulevards, and parks. The weather is nice too. That’s why all the people from up north buy property here. So that they can experience the nice weather instead of the cold winter and play a couple of holes on the golf course before they drive down the boulevard to go have lunch in a park. 

But all of these things are artificial. The palm trees are planted and mostly non-native species. The golf courses, lawns, gardens, boulevards, and parks need to be maintained by a cadre of people employed specifically to prune and trim. The nice weather only lasts a few months every year. 

If we look away from the artificial Florida and instead go searching for the real Florida, where do we end up? 

First of all, let’s talk about the weather. You don’t know what it’s like to live in Florida until you have spent the summer here. The humidity, the thunder showers, the hurricanes. 

Then there are the wetlands with the hammocks and the sawgrass. There are pine ridges, barrier islands, alligators, and mosquitoes. Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, who was crucial in the fight to save the Everglades from complete exploitation and destruction, never visited there. Why? Because, she explained, the Everglades is not meant for people.  

Right now, the Everglades is a specific thing, namely the Everglades National Park, which is located mainly in between the cities of Miami and Naples. But the Everglades—the river of grass—reaches all the way up the interior of the Florida peninsula. And if we stop maintaining artificial Florida—if we stop mowing the lawns, trimming the golf courses, and what have you—this is the Florida that will take over. And it will take over quickly. 

In 2019, the movie Annihilation starring Nathalie Portman and Oscar Isaac opened in the theaters. Annihilation is based on the first part of the science fiction-horror trilogy The Southern Reach Trilogy written by Florida author Jeff Vandermeer.

Annihilation takes place in an ecological anomaly called Area X. Area X is inspired by the St Mark’s Wildlife Reserve, which is located near where Vandermeer lives in the Florida panhandle. Area X, this anomaly where all kinds of strange and horrific things happen, is a metaphor for Florida.  

I agree with Vandermeer’s view of Florida. To me, Florida is a living thing that we have pushed to the brink by confining it to specific parts of the peninsula we now inhabit.  

We are toying with Area X at our own peril. We build houses where they shouldn’t be built. We drain waterways that shouldn’t be drained. We build roads where roads shouldn’t go. And once in a while, Florida strikes back, and the result is catastrophic.  

Much of the disaster caused by Hurricane Ian could have been avoided if we had developed Florida’s coasts in a sustainable way. The counties where Ian struck are now like Area X. Some of the damaged areas will be reclaimed and redeveloped, while other areas will be left to be absorbed by Florida. 

Hurricane Nicole caused further damage this week. Piers were shattered by waves and winds. Houses collapsed into the ocean when the beach they were built upon washed out to sea. Neighborhoods were flooded.

They say that the worst part of a hurricane is the aftermath. Preparing for a hurricane takes a couple of days at the most. If you have your hurricane plan in place, all you need to do is wait for impact. When the hurricane makes landfall, you hunker down and wait for it to pass. It is afterwards, when people resurface from where they have been sheltering, that the difficulties begin.

The destruction a hurricane wreaks depends on its strength, size, and where and when it makes landfall. But regardless of the how and the when, the aftermath of a hurricane is a disaster. For a brief moment, there is only people. And Florida.

The rest of America views Florida as a weird place with weird people. To a certain extent, they are not wrong. Florida is weird. Living in Florida makes you weird.

Living in Florida is like living in a world where The Restaurant at the End of the Universe meets Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time.” Maybe that is so because six months out of every year, we live with the possibility of facing our last moment. Maybe it’s because living in Florida is living with the apocalypse.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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A Possible Path Forward. A Review of Sarah F. Derbew’s UNTANGLING BLACKNESS IN GREEK ANTIQUITY

When you come to a fork in the road, take it. American baseball legend Yogi Berra was supposedly talking about how he gets to his house, but this Berra-ism applies to Classical studies and Ancient history as well.

The origins of Classical studies and Ancient history are similar to those of history in general. White European men of the eighteenth century studied the past in search of their own reflection. Some of them searched among the civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean and believed they found it in the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Fast forward approximately 250 years, and their ideas are still with us. The mainstream view of the Ancients remains that of a prequel and model for Western hegemony.

The mainstream view of the Ancients continues to be represented among Classic scholars and Ancient historians; however, a shift has been happening over the past few decades, a shift that recently has picked up speed. Ancient Greek and Rome are no longer seen as the role models that we should base our own society upon. The Ancient Greeks were as influenced by Persia and Egypt as they were ingenious in their own inventions. The marble statues that the eighteenth-century founders of Classical studies used as evidence of Rome and Greece as white civilizations were in fact painted in gaudy colors. The Ancient world was a world of prejudice and slavery, but didn’t judge based on skin color.

The shift that is happening in Classical studies and Ancient history causes conflict among scholars. Meanwhile, the assault on the humanities that is ongoing in the United States at the moment means that flagship departments see their funding reduced or cut entirely. As a result, the fields of Classical studies and Ancient history are faced with an existential crisis. If the fields survive, what will they be?

Sarah F. Derbew’s book Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge University Press, 2022) clears a possible path forward. The book bursts out of the gate already in its introduction by taking to task bigoted and presentist interpretations of skin color in the Ancient world by scholars of the past as well as the present. Following the introduction is a chapter that analyzes the janiform, or two-faced, drinking cups known as kantharos that were used during symposia, or drinking parties, in Ancient Athens. Derbew’s analysis of the racialization of these cups by scholars of later times slices and dices their bigoted projections with such precision that nothing but strips are left when she is done. Derbew then sets her sights on how to read ancient literary texts such as the Lucian satires and Heliodorus’s novel Aithiopika in the twenty-first century.

The book’s theoretical framework is that of Critical Race Theory. Though mainly a theoretical framework to help explain how modern American society is shaped by perceptions of race and ethnicity, Derbew shows how Critical Race Theory can be used for a twenty-first century reading of ancient literature, thus ensuring its continued relevance while simultaneously steering Classical studies and Ancient history further down the path away from their racist roots.

For historians Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity provides little new information. Throughout the book, Derbew concludes what is already known: in the Ancient world skin color did not carry meaning when categorizing people. On the other hand, for the deconstruction of modern racist projections onto the Ancient world and for the future study of Ancient literature, Derbew’s contribution is invaluable.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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I Wake Up and Greet the Dawn

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“Then when the young Dawn showed again with her rosy fingers…”*

Every morning before sunrise I put on my sneakers and go out for a thirty minute combination walk and run. When I step out the door, it is dark. When I come back, it is light.

My favorite part of the day is when it is just beginning. When the veil of night slowly lifts, the sun rises, and the world comes to life. Birds start to sing. Lizards start to move. Not a lot of people are about. There are few cars on the road. The time of day when silence opens up into noise.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

* Richmond Lattimore (transl.), The Odyssey of Homer (Harper Perennial Classics, 1999), Book 8 line 1.

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