APU Everyday Scholar Podcast

The Pros and Cons of Black History Month

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, DMA, Department Chair, Communication and World Languages and
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-FergusonFaculty Member, School of Arts, Humanities, and Education

Black History Month is a time to explore the many contributions of Black people to American culture. But do people tend to focus on all the extraordinary accomplishments and leave out the struggles and ongoing inequities? In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU professor Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson about the value of learning about Black history in a holistic way that includes talking about racism, exclusion, inequity and the struggles alongside the incredible accomplishments and contributions of Black people throughout American history.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking to Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson, faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities & Education. And today our conversation is about Black History Month. Welcome, Jennifer.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Thank you, Bjorn.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: As long as I’ve been alive, there’s been a Black History Month, which I think has been a super positive. And so why is Black History Month an important and a good thing?

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: To be honest, all history really is good history. And because our country is built with so many different cultures, there have to be plenty of aspects brought in for people to truly understand how this country has progressed and moved forward.

A lot of times, African Americans and their contributions have been seen in a negative light. There’s a lot of talk about uprising and riots, there’s a lot of talk about looting. People point to Black on Black crime, people talk about rap lyrics and their negativity, but they do have to understand that African Americans have been absolutely essential in the building and the progress of this country and moving forward. Black History Month offers a pretty wide lens to explore the many contributions that have been given to this country.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: An absolutely wonderful statement. It is tough, because like you said, like when people perceive such negative aspects of say history and history is it’s just facts. Now we can of course go down the rabbit hole of history as perception based on who wrote it-

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: And who won.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And who won. And this is one of the things about Black History Month, where to learn about all the foundational men and women throughout the history of America ever since, not even just the founding say 1776, but before that.

You want to go back to 1619, when Africans were brought over, enslaved, to start working here. The Black population in America has, like you said, has been foundational to America. And, like you said, it’s not to discount the Hispanic population, it’s not to discount Asian population, especially not to discount the indigenous population that was already here, the black Africans who are American have a—and I don’t want to say the wrong word—but a special place in American history.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Well, I think people started to kind of get a glimpse of it a couple of years ago when the movie “Hidden Figures” came out. And I just recall talking to friends that had absolutely no idea that there were any Black women at NASA whatsoever, let alone being human calculators and being the ones who calculated the correct trajectory, even so much that even after computers became a little more common to run these calculations, they were still running these mathematical numbers by these Black women to make sure that their launchings and landings were going to go clearly.

And it’s rather astonishing to me that people wouldn’t know that. Granted, I have a degree in Black history, so I did study it, but to delete important items like that out of history, it’s not just that you’re not talking about it, you’re erasing it.

You’re erasing key moments where African Americans stood up and said, “Let’s make this happen,” and then they were given absolutely zero credit, which if you’re going to blame people for bad things happening such as riots or crime, you also need to give credit where credit is due. And African Americans leading toward the space race and getting us up into space isn’t something that should have ever been ignored.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Completely, completely. And it’s one of those unfortunate realities, culture oftentimes has a one-track mind and so it’s very easy to understand this one narrative. And then when you throw in, the more complexities of history, history is complex. It’s not just this happened equals this, it’s very difficult.

And even in the history of what people typically learn in America, and this is for a long time and still today where there was slavery, slavery was bad, everybody agrees about that. The Civil War happened about slavery some people will say, “Well, there’s more than that.” Of course, there’s always more than slavery, but a foundational reason for the Civil War was slavery.

And then the Civil War ended, slaves were freed and very little is then learned about reconstruction and ignoring the needs of the Black population and helping them and then separate but equal happened, and then, “Oh, it’s bad.” And then decades later, the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

So there’s so much history and that’s not even that long ago history, that is left out that shouldn’t have to be discovered if people take like a Black history course or something like that, it should be part of just regular history. And it’s not to dwell on the negatives of history, but it’s to learn the realities of history.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I think the biggest issue truly comes from the ego. If you start to talk about negative things that happened such as the Tulsa Race Massacre 100 years ago, then you have to stop and say, “Hold on a second, what do you mean that some white Americans went down to Tulsa and rioted and looted? What do you mean that the government bombed, you know, this city?” All of a sudden, you have to stop and say, “Well, hold on a second. If people said, ‘Okay, if you don’t like how white America is set up, go and start your own thing’ and a lot of Black people did flock to Tulsa to start a Black community where there were successful businesses, where there were successful banks, where they had their own Wall Street and they were highly successful,” then you have to step back and say, “But our government bombed them? Our government was okay with white Americans going and tearing this city down?”

And I think what starts to happen is people get that really bad taste in their mouth of, “Oh, well now I have to look at white history slightly differently. I have to look at the actions of white Americans a little more critically.”

And I think a lot of times that hurts people’s egos to realize, “Yeah, your family’s been here a couple of generations, but were they the good people that you’ve always been told they were?” And I think it pushes up against people’s notion of religious standards, people’s notion of what is correct and right, people’s notion of being good and bad and what actually constitutes an upstanding citizen.

And sometimes people are presented back a mirror that makes them start to wonder, “Oh, well, if African Americans were told, leave the white cities and go create your own and then they did, and they were successful, and then that city was obliterated.” It makes you have to start to wonder, “Okay, but what other facets of history have I learned incorrectly?”

I mean, there’s a huge movement I think now with critical race theory and even in my own community, which is, is fairly cultural, we have quite a few different cultural representations here. Some people that I know absolutely could not stand to have critical race theories in our middle schools and high schools.

And I finally stopped and asked a woman I knew we’re friendly, not friends, but friendly, “Well, what’s wrong with critical race theory?” And she is like, “Well, it shouldn’t be taught.” “Okay, fair. What is it?” We had a real long quiet space and I’m okay with quiet spaces, I’m actually good to sit in them. I think most faculty members are, “I’m going to ask a question, I’m going to wait for you to answer.” And because I left it quiet, she got uncomfortable, she began to fidget and she’s like, “Well, I don’t actually know what it is.” And so said, “How can you actually contest something that you don’t know what it is?” “Because it’s bad,” “But you don’t know what it is.”

And so we keep bumping against this idea that when we talk about, “The words are charged,” correct? “Critical race theory.” Well, I don’t understand what it means, but it’s critical and therefore there’s already a negative connotation.

Again, when you have to look at history, it’s not a black and white lens. There are many different ideas, ideologies, and attitudes that come into it. But if you’re going to really understand history, if you’re going to understand the history of America, if you’re going to understand the history of racism, if you’re going to understand the history of exclusion, then you truly need to understand the history of all the different cultures that are involved.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly and critical race theory, it is a curious term that is used rhetorically, I would say politically, the idea of critical race theory and the say the backlash to it. Like, “You know, people shouldn’t learn this, shouldn’t do this.” And it forces people to confront the history they think is real.

And oftentimes when I talk about history, I love history and the best historians try to do the best job they can, but there’s a large component of history that is mythology and there’s nothing, “wrong,” with the mythology of history, but what’s wrong with the mythology of history is when you start believing in your own mythology as a people or as a country, to the detriment of other people or hidden figures, ignoring large swaths of other people, because they’re not in that main narrative.

For me, looking at Black History Month, it’s really trying to say, “Look, there have been countless, thousands and thousands and well millions of people, who have contributed to American history. And for the most part for decades, those figures were ignored.”

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I agree. I think it’s partially because there’s only a certain way that Black history is palatable. So if we look at the people that are talked about, Martin Luther King, Jr. He is shown in a very palatable light. There’s very little talk inside the mainstream that a couple of weeks after he gave his speech, but before he was assassinated, that he did write a couple of articles. He did have a couple of comments about, “I was wrong. I don’t think this country can actually come together.”

And a lot of people have A, never even heard of that or B, not read the articles. They’re like, “Well, hold on a second. But you know, he was, he was for unification.” And not to offend anybody in the least, but he was a good Negro. He was light-skinned, he had a reverence attached to his name. He had a Ph.D., He was well spoken in vernacular English that the mainstream had and could understand with relatively little accent.

So, he was one of the good ones. He was one of them that other people could look at and say, “Well, yeah, he’s, you know, he’s right, he’s there.” But then when you look at other people like Ruby Bridges, she was all of six, and grown folk, I mean, adult white women, white men, were so vitriolic she required military protection to go to school.

And so, all of a sudden, you have to stop and say, “Well, okay, if critical race theory is going to talk about Ruby Bridges just a little bit more,” again, that mirror is turned and it’s like, “What would grown people have to do with a six year old getting an education? Why was that such a terrible thing? Where was the fear? What were they afraid of?” And I think sometimes Black history is viewed with that lens.

So if we start bringing out accomplishments of African Americans, we can no longer see them as “other.” They are foundational in the building of this country so they’re not other, they’re not less than, they’re not less worthy. All of a sudden it starts to up the playing field and it starts to become a little more equal.

And some people do not want to have to acknowledge that the reason that they’re not successful in a career, but their Black colleague is, is just because their Black colleague is better than them. It’s not that they’ve been given an artificial advancement for diversity’s sake. And I think a lot of people have a problem with that because they’ve been told their entire lives that, “You are superior.”

And so, again, it’s not just Black history, it’s definitely Indigenous Americans history, it’s Asian American history, it’s Latino American history and all the many, many more that I am missing. But here the focus is on Black history. And I think sometimes it becomes a bitter pill to swallow to recognize this country would not be where it is and what it is without contributions.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Even just from like my perspective as a musician, the one music that the U.S. has contributed to world culture is jazz. Back in the day, when I say back in the day, like 120 years ago, Americans had classical, but we were just copying Europeans. And it was only when jazz came out of ragtime, which came out of spirituals and the music of the slave population that American music started spreading throughout the world and jazz really spread throughout the world that today it is considered one of the art musics of the world. And again, that would never have existed without the contributions, great contributions, I’d say a majority contributions of Black musicians, both men and women.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: So, what a lot of people may not know is that in Michigan where I’m the located, there was a very popular African American resort in Idlewild, Michigan. And it was a vacation resort, but it boasted the largest African American musical acts to come through. And so it was a big vacation spot, there was a lot of new and upcoming people that were there.

Aretha Franklin spent a little time, Nina Simone spent some time, but what started happening is with the popularity of this resort, white music scouts did start to look at African American contributors and they would pick certain people that would then be invited to white venues, which, unfortunately, what happens much in music, just like in baseball is once a person is able to perform on a wider stage, that then becomes desirable, not just focus on the African American community, but also now when you get to play white stages, your artistry is spread.

And more people wanted better chances. I mean, absolutely nothing wrong with promoting your art and wanting a bigger audience. But what it started to do with Idlewild, is diminish the value because all of a sudden these musicians are like, “I can have a wider stage, and so I want that.” And it started to water down what they were willing to do. And it also left some of the lesser known artists kind of stuck in floundering because they didn’t have quite the viability that they could go to a more mixed audience.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Very well said. And it’s still an issue today because record companies always go for the artists that will make the most money, honestly. And because of the record industry and how the consolidation, record labels really focus on a few acts to make their millions of dollars. When in reality, there’s dozens and hundreds of wonderful, more wonderful artists out there. There’s more music today and better music ever, but it’s hard to find, and it’s not on the top 20.

There’s a certain sound or what people expect some people to do. Whomever you are, there are these assumptions and biases that, “Oh, well you should play rock. Oh, you should do rap. You should do R&B, you should do this and that.” And when people don’t quite fit that mold sometimes the powers that be, the ones that make all the money, don’t know where to put people. And it’s a weird, I guess I could say confusion, which today plays out better than it used to in the past, but it’s still there, those unintentional and intentional biases.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I think part of what has lended to that too, and no shade against streaming. I, I love streaming features. I appreciate not necessarily having to listen to advertisements, but I think a lot of people do not understand the absolute importance that Black DJs and Black radio station announcers played to the community.

It wasn’t just, “Oh, let me talk and get your attention.” But a lot of times these radio announcers were announcing local events that were happening, they were rallying people to causes. They were definitely getting people interested in local music. And that’s why for such a long time, your coastal sounds, sounded absolutely different. Your sounds in Texas and Louisiana were very regionally dialected because you didn’t have one streaming service to homogenize the sound.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And today, unfortunately, there is a homogenous sound because we all go onto some streaming service. And unless we specifically ask streaming “Flint, local, music,” you get the same artist you hear all the time, which means the money goes to the same artists who get the money all the time. It’s this huge inequity. Inequity in the sense that, again, the record labels want a few people to make all the money because that’s how the record labels make. But again, there are so many great artists out there, it’s very difficult to find. And this leads me to the only other question I have, is why is Black History Month potentially a negative thing?

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I think it’s potentially negative because it, much like any other history, you only see one side of things and that’s just not how this world works. We live in a very 3D world where there are many sides. I’m sure most people have heard the saying, “There are three sides to a story, person A, person B, and then the truth.” And if you only focus on just one aspect, you only get a certain view with a certain lens from the person who’s telling it.

For example, one thing that I have never seen in Black History Month is the history of interracial marriages. And quite frankly, up until 1967, it was absolutely, absolutely forbidden. People were beat. I mean, people were killed. Absolutely ridiculous. And then, bringing it forward, Alabama was the last State in 2000, 2000 before they allowed interracial marriage to be legal, which means I wouldn’t have been able to get married.

So the negatives kind of come in, it creates pockets of blind spots. So a lot of times when you go through Black History Month, you are given achievements, you are given things that were done well. And you want to look at these people, these inventors, these musicians, these doctors who have done all these great contributions, but I also think it tamps down the struggle that was had. It’s never accurately portrayed how bad slavery was, how bad the conditions were. And it doesn’t really reflect the struggles that have continued to come.

When you get pushback about Black History Month, the first pushback that I tend to hear is, “Well, it happened so long ago.” No, no, it, it still is happening. There are biases everywhere and I don’t indemnify anybody or any culture for having biases. We all have them, that’s part of what makes us people who are able to analyze, people who are able to critically read and assess situations.

But, I do think at certain points, and, obviously, if you’re talking to young children, you need to sanitize certain things. But as you grow older, you should be fed a little bit more of the truth, because slavery was horrific, and it is so watered down, people just don’t really get it. So, my criticism of Black History Month is they tend to hold onto this handful of really good, high-achieving things, and they kind of let some of the dirt fall to the bottom on the floor.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that totally makes sense, because history is great because we learn about great achievers like you said. One of my favorite classical musicians is William Grant Still. Great composer, gets about one sentence in the history books and it’s sad. But I think part of the reason he doesn’t get a lot of notoriety is that he’s a direct, “competitor,” to Aaron Copeland. Aaron Copeland often considered the one of the greatest American composers.

And so, William Grant Still is kind of, he is important, but then not talked about a lot. And so we, but then we, we look at somebody like that and we are like, “Oh, he did so many great things.” But then what about all the other musicians? What about all the other people who lived, who was born when he was born and grew up in the ’20s and was trying to make it in the ’20s and the ’30s?

And even though he was in New York, and he lived the vast majority of his life in the north, it’s not like the south was bad, the rest of the country was good. It’s, unfortunately, not that simple. There were a lot of extraordinarily poor, terrible laws everywhere. A commonality is to say, “Oh, well, those ways of thinking, that’s still in the south.” No, that’s being too simple again with history and the reality. And it was really throughout the country, unfortunately. And we’re still trying to reconcile with that country wide issue today.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: And that, again, wrapping back to why we need to view all these different histories, is it’s really easy to hate “other.” It is really easy to dismiss other when you don’t realize they have foundations. I teach English and writing and one of the points of comparison I like to bring to people, because a lot of people have heard of Langston Hughes and they’re like, “Okay, he’s really great.” And they’ve also heard of Fitzgerald and “The Great Gatsby.” And I try to remind people, these two, Langston Hughes’ and Fitzgerald works, were released around the same timeframe. And with Fitzgerald, you have this great story of coming into wealth and trying to fit in with the wealthy people just being nouveau-riche and how that looked and this yearning better than. And then you have Hughes whose works are like, “Look at me. I am a human, I am here with you. I have struggled with you. I am just looking for equality.”

[Podcast: Writing Habits and Skills for Aspiring Authors]

So, on one hand, we have these two different stories of, “I want wealth accumulation, I want better than,” and the other is saying, “Can you please just make me not other?” And it kind of takes people aback sometimes because, I think a lot of times historical context is fragmented, and things are presented out of time and off a timeline and it allows people then to become ignorant of just how long this behavior has gone on. It didn’t stop, you know, when slavery was done, there were a series of actions afterward and, yes, even in 2022, there are still some issues that people have to talk about.

And again, it comes to people being uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable to sit in the truths that your ancestors have done bad things. It’s uncomfortable to recognize you have a bias because you just didn’t know better. And so I think a lot of times there’s pushback because people are like, “Well, I know about my country.” And the reality is, you really don’t, and I’m not just going to single out certain people I have to too. I myself have to, to acknowledge my own ignorance when it comes to a deeper study of Indigenous, a deeper study of Asian culture and bringing up through the Americas. That’s just not my experience, so I haven’t spent as much time learning it, but at least I can acknowledge, I don’t have all that information at my fingertips to speak adequately about it, even eloquently.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Very well said. And that’s one of the realities is as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize just how little I know. But it’s true because we’re guided by the lives we live, the bodies we’re in, and we’re guided by the people that are around us.

And at times I don’t blame people for not knowing things because imagine you live somewhere, say north somewhere where you’re in your town and the town is 98% white just to throw that. And you’ve never been around someone who is Black or Hispanic or indigenous or Asian or whatever and then what you’re around is what guides you in your life and imagine what your family was like or all these different things that go around it. The most important thing today, because we can’t control the past, it’s gone. We can’t control the future, we can only control how we react today.

So, we all have biases, and if your first thought could be perceived as a negative thought or a bias thought, guess what? Words that come out of your mouth are the things that matter and how you treat people is important because you have control over how you treat people. And if you don’t know, just ask a question, that’s all you going to do. And if you don’t know, because you don’t know, there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s so much history, there’s so much that has gone on with people. Now, how would you suggest people learn more about Black history or just the complexities of American history?

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Well, we are in a time where we do have the internet. So, the one thing I would say you should definitely not do, don’t befriend people just to examine their culture. It’s really disingenuous and people see through it pretty quickly, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking an interest and doing a little bit of due diligence and leaning into things.

So, one of my children is very interested in anime and manga, Japanese style of cartoon whether video or comic book. And he enjoys it and he likes to talk about it and then, poor him, he has an educator as a parent who then digs in and says, “Well, let’s look at this. You know, let’s look at why they have this very distinct style. Let’s look at the language that is used. Let’s look at how they culturally interact with each other, such as bowing,” which most people understand to be a symbol of respect, but what just broke my mind was, it’s not just how you bow. It’s not to just how low you bow. It’s not just where your feet are, it’s not just where your hands are, it’s at different angles. It is so complex. And I thought I understood what bowing meant. “Oh, it’s a sign of respect.” It is so much more nuanced than that.

And I think that is the best thing anybody can do is, if you’re going to take an interest, you don’t necessarily have to fall down the rabbit hole, but I would encourage people understand where things came from. It’s not a bad thing to look at a style of music or a style of literature, and really want to understand it and take a deep dive. What I think is harmful, is when people are like, “Oh, I like rap, so now I’m about that thug life.”

No, no, you are not. You are sitting in your nice, quiet suburban home, not hearing a single gunshot, not understanding how drugs were adopted into communities, you like this particular art form. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But you can’t say you understand everything about what drove rap, why it became important, why it became successful, just enjoy the rap. There’s nothing wrong with that, you are allowed to enjoy things. You don’t always have to do a deep dive, but if you want to understand more, than by all means, do some due diligence, do some digging. There’s nothing wrong with educating yourself a little further.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. I completely agree. And anybody can like any music since we’ve talked about music, you know, actually one thing I’ve learned recently, and I’ve missed this too, because that’s what happens when you get older, K-pop. I’ve missed the big artists and everything like that, but I watched a video about K-pop and it turns out that a lot of the producers that create K-pop in South Korea were Black producers who are very popular the Xero’s. And so when you listen to K-pop, it’s familiar because it’s American R&B from the Xeros.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Correct. I did know that.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, which is so crazy. But then when you watch K-pop you also notice that a lot of things they do are very similar to what, “American culture, Black culture,” say might want to project from the Xeros or whatnot.

And so it’s a very interesting conversation to have about South Korean culture and American culture coming together. And I’m not saying it’s a negative and just, it’s an interesting observation to always have when it comes to how people look at a type of music or certain things that they really respect and then go with that.

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: And I think that’s where admiration comes in and we don’t have nearly even enough time to talk about appropriation or and of the other gajillion things that happen. But I do think showing how cross-culturally influences can be a positive, is a great thing.

One of the things that non-musicians may not know is that Sweden is one of the major powerhouses for writing music all over the world, not just in Sweden, but we have so many songs and lyrics that have been created and sent over that are also sent over to K-pop, that are also sent over to Italy and France. A lot of people in the musical world talk about Sweden having that magical formula for creating catch poppy tunes and it’s not a lie. You look statistically, and a lot of the music imported is there. And so we’re hitting, I think, some norms where we like to hear things, but we have a lot of different influences and people like to lay claim, “Oh, it’s just K-pop.” Well, it’s a little more than that. It’s a country music, but it’s a little more than that.

And I think that’s actually where the best of our cultures do come together, is there is many magnificent creative arts that come out from this cooperation or from these influences. And so wrapping through back to Black History Month, yes, show where some of these influences are.

Another slight negative update, some of the stuff, we like to reach way far back and say, “Here are these things that happened.” The problem with that is you are now setting a timeframe with MLK Jr. and that’s kind of like this new starting point for people over. “So we can forget all the stuff in the past, we’re going to start with MLK, but we’re not going to talk about as assassination, we’re just going to talk about the great speech.”

And so again, that sense of timelessness, but if you flash forward to the early 2000’s, even back it up to the 1990’s, for those of you a little older, we do see collaborative efforts from artists. Technically speaking more around creative venues, it’s a little easier seen, but even looking through literature, looking through academia, looking through these different aspects of engineering, there is a lot of collaboration that has gone by, people just need equal credit.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And I couldn’t have said it better, people need equal credit. And, ideally, if American exceptionalism wants to continue, everybody whom creates great things will get equal credit. Can’t change the past and whatever happened back then. And so, absolutely wonderful conversation Jennifer, any final words?

Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Enjoy. Black History Month is not threatening. There are many wonderful things to be examined and learned. The good always comes with the bad. That is life, we don’t necessarily like to embrace it all the time, but I think most people will be pleasantly surprised to look at Black history in different areas, engineering, math, science, arts, music, all of it, and find some great people they’ve never heard of, they’ve never seen, and look at the contributions that they’ve given and start to embrace, “This is just part of the United States of America. This is a well stone of our culture as well. And it’s something that should be embraced, not feared.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Very well said. And today, we are speaking with Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson about Black History Month. And, of course, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thank you for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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