Slavery no Featherweight

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I wasn’t going far, just one stop. On my way out of the door of the red line train, I was astonished. A large white feather was in my path. It seemed very much out of place. It was dazzling in its whiteness, very long, pristine. The quill was robust. The kind, it seemed, that might have been used to write documents before there was a fountain pen, a ball point, or a roller ball.

As I walked up the stairs to the exit, a memory flashed in my mind. About ten years ago, I visited the Trinity College Library in Dublin. There I saw illustrated pages from the Book of Kells, a multi-volume medieval manuscript. The care and beauty and coloring as well as the creativity of and investment in the ornate cursive transported me back to a time when writing was seen as a special talent, an art, a way of consecrating meaning and communicating beyond one’s present time to the future, even a kind of worship.

Seeing that feather made me think of another aspect of writing: its sometimes soaring quality but also the authority that words can wield, how they can make things happen, how they can bring realities into being. That is certainly true when we think of legal, religious, and political documents.


Written for The Public Humanist, a blog by Mass Humanities.