Today in History: September 2

With an elusive specificity, Theodore Roosevelt always attributed his most famous statement to “Africa”—sometimes he introduced it with the statement that it was “a proverb you are all familiar with from West Africa” and sometimes he said it was a saying from South Africa.

“Speak softly and carry a big stick—you will go far,” was the saying that he credited to ancients from a land far away. He started to use the phrase in correspondence as early as 1900, when he was governor, but on this date in 1901, Vice President Roosevelt used the phrase in a speech at the Minnesota State Fair entitled National Duties. President William McKinley was gunned down four days later and died eight days after that, so this speech was visited and re-visited by the media as the only exposition the public had of the new young president’s worldview.

No anthropologist, mythologist, sociologist or any expert in any of the many cultures found across that broad continent has found a source for Roosevelt’s famous saying. Roosevelt also seems to have always introduced the phrase with another clause: “you are all familiar with this saying.” As far as anyone knows, Theodore Roosevelt came up with the expression himself, but he felt the need to deflect the attribution for it to a sort of collective folk wisdom. Roosevelt was a young politician: New York State Governor at 40, Vice President at 41, President at 42, so perhaps he viewed it as part of crafting an image of seeming to be well-read and experienced beyond his years.

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Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian child whose family attempted to flee the chaos in that country, died one year ago today when the boat the family was loaded onto to traverse part of the Mediterranean Sea capsized. (It was an inflatable boat built for a maximum of eight people, and 16 clambered onto it. They were sold life jackets which turned out to be fakes.) His body floated to shore and washed up on a beach, and photos taken of the dead child briefly focused global attention on the refugee crisis that had reached crisis status many months before and continues to be a crisis one full year later.

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Billy Preston was born 70 years ago today. “Nothing From Nothing” on Soul Train:

 
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Senator Alan K. Simpson is 85 today. Joan Bennett Kennedy is 80 today. Peter Ueberroth is 79. Terry Bradshaw is 68. Mark Harmon is 65. Jimmy Connors is 64. John Zorn is 63 today. Keanu Reeves is 52. Lennox Lewis is 51. Salma Hayek is 50 today.

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