Category Archives: Intersections

Solidarity Blues: Richard Iton on Race, Culture and the Left

Richard Iton’s Solidarity Blues was so good for thinking not just about how race and the American left have articulated, but the nature of the left in general. I use that word ‘left’ often, struggle with it, often distinguish between an elite left and a grassroots left (you all know which one I’m for). Iton takes a step back, to look at the broader ideas in motion:

I attempt to understand how the forces of individualism and collectivism interact in different contexts. (5)

This is much broader than the ‘left’, starts to capture some of the things that happen outside of movement. But I like his broad understanding of the left as well, looking at it in three different aspects:

  1. the conventional conceptions, labor movements and socialist parties

  2. the availability of a certain set or type of public goods

  3. the prevalence of a certain sensibility or set of cultural values. (6)

I like too, this case for just how different America is from the other ‘developed’ nations and how it contrasts with other countries where:

certain things are taken for granted: comprehensive health care, inclusive voter registration procedure, affordable higher education, and a certain standard of public safety. (7)

Not in the US as everyone knows. Which begs the question:

Why so slow, so reluctant to provide public goods?

the answer — constructions of race — and instead of choosing to allow race to disappear or lose its significance,

at every opportunity the choice has been made to remake race in some potent form at the cost of community. (22)

So, to summarise Iton’s arguments on the articulation of race with these three principal aspects of the Left.

Labour Movements and Socialist Parties

Labour movements are sustained by a collective identity of labour opposed to capital. In the US, this collective identity was fractured by race in three principal ways — that follow one from the other and that in themselves show the complexities of this I think.

  1. the popular identification of organized labor with racial progressivism (an association that was accurate at times and ironic at others)

  2. the energies consumed by internecine battles within the labour movement between nativist and racist constituencies and those advocating a more inclusive movement

  3. the decisions made by nativists, racists and their opponents to forego challenging the racial status quo and organizing immigrant workers, in the belief that a successful labour movement could be sustained without the participation of those groups, and that these issues and constituencies  could be dealt with at some later point… (25)

This helps explain the rise of someone like Samuel Gompers in the AFL — fucking Samuel Gompers, the UK has some responsibility for him too as he was born here. He promoted a focus on today’s battles rather than a broader struggle or movement — small wins, craft unions, the exclusion of people of colour, such an ugly politics that wasn’t arguably even practical given it created large pools of strikebreakers. He actually fought while in the cigar makers union to have white labels placed on cigars made by white labour so racists would know and could but white and union.

No wonder you get Du Bois writing that the  ‘AFL not a labor movement, but monopoly of skilled workers’.

There are some brighter lights, though they may have shone briefly. Hurrah, for instance, for the Western Federation of Miners, founded in 1893 in Montana (Montana! No longer somewhere such a movement could blossom I think). From them grew the IWW in 1905 — and of course Iton notes the greater homogeneity of the west coast and how it shaped their politics, it was easier not to be racist. But still. While Iton argues their importance was more symbolic, he does quote Dubovsky:

so feared were the Wobblies that probably no group of labor agitators before or since has as suddenly or disastrously experienced the full wrath of state and national authorities. (51)

On the whole though, Labor’s record in the US is dismal.

labor’s job is to ensure that its constituency can control the circumstances of its existence. Organized labor in the United States has largely either been afraid to do so, or, because of internal and external compromises, been unable to do so. (78)

Where it has been successful in building solidarity, Iton notes, it has actually been along racial lines rather than lines of work or labour.

Southern Politics and Parties

Nothing establishes better the broad weaknesses of the left, and how racial conflicts have prevented it from creating a more collectivist society, than a hard look at the impact of Southern ‘Democratic’ party politics. Iton summarises his argument that it created a:

  1. constant division of leftists activists over issue of whether organizations would be interracial, segregated, or separate but coordinated.
  2. popular rejection of those movements which have pursued interracial alliances …IWW, UMW, CIO
  3. …the race issue has just been a problem to be solved at some future date (84)

Jim Crow disenfranchised Blacks, but also increasingly poor whites, concentrating power in Southern elites against which the whole country has been held hostage through the Democratic party.

 

There was, of course, that brief period when Lenin in the 2nd congress of 1920 directed the Communist Party to support the self-determination of oppressed peoples within nations — this included the Irish and  African negroes as revolutionary groups, which ensured that the CPUSA  for a time did its best to pursue equal rights for blacks, and in South proposing in proposed a black belt nation. In the North, party activists began doing grassroots organizing work with tenants, particularly around rent strikes and the unemployed councils. In 1936 they formed the National Negro Congress, and at this time also began reaching out  to other race communities, such as Mexican farmworkers.

‘By 1935…11 percent of the party’s roughly 27,000 members were black, and in the South, blacks composed an even higher percentage. (118)

Change in CP policy led widespread abandonment of earlier causes, but this isn’t really mentioned. It does help explain some of the automatic connection between race equality and communism that is still so prevalent today, though I mostly think this has been a convenient labeling to facilitate isolation and repression. Of course, it meant the red scare had an even greater impact on those fighting for racial equality. Like Gerald Horne, Iton writes of this period after WWII, which saw:

a unique collapsing of the realms of racial and class politics…the effective end of the traditional left in American politics and a further truncation of the acceptable range of debate concerning economic issues and alternatives. (125)

The radical politics emerging from the Great Depression could have been a time when working classes came together, but instead they split over race. Party politics since then has not sought to challenge current attitudes, but work within the very limited gains staying within them can achieve… White privilege was just a little too strong I suppose. Old FDR himself maintained a 2nd home in Warm Springs Georgia, and promoted himself in 1932 election as a “Georgia planter-politician’.

And now? Iton cites Robert Greenberg’s 1985 study of Macomb ,Michicgan and the switch from Democrat to Republican among white working to middle-class Americans

These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics. . . . Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything else that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a place a decent place to live. (129)

Bloody hell.

Beyond the Left

Iton describes how race conservatism has allowed rights to vote to be curtailed, slowed and reduced medicare and medicaid, opposed fair employment practices committee, ensured no best practices taken from Europe as US the only superpower post WWII. But this is a question that continues to pester me:

While I do not want to overstate the importance of the cultural politics of the post-McCarthy era from a progressive standpoint, the inability of the American left to survive the era that produced the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism says something about the American left, as well as American society. (218)

For Iton the why is at least partially found here:

the characteristically American resistance to collective strategies reflects an attachment to the rights and prerogatives of individuals over and above and particular communities. (234)

This of course emerges from Turner’s ‘frontier thesis, or Louis Hartz or Seymour Martin Lipset’s work.  But this doesn’t go deep enough, why this push towards individualism?

The liberal individualism Hartz and others have cited has been rhetorical residue remaining after the battles among the competing “we” claims promoted by different ethnic and racial communities. In other words, while an examination of the speeches of politician might reflect a particularly American preference for individual liberties, the unstated realities have often been shaped by the ethnic and racial calculations made by different groups. (235)

This has never been dealt with by the left in its goal to appeal to the broadest number of people and rejection of the call to help with the ‘maintenance and relaization of a collective sensibility and human civilization.’ (245-246). There is more to dig into here about the way that race has structured capital (see Cedric Robinson), or about how racism has help form a concept of whiteness tied to privilege (as does David Roediger), but the result has been tragic. The book ends with this thought:

The particular and exceptional extent to which the American left has been removed from the main stage of American life has been a direct function of its inability or unwillingness to transcend these hurdles in an especially demographically diverse context, and a result of the popular attachment to a realm — race — that can generate few larger meanings, resilient identities, or practical moralities. (246)

 

Iton, Richard (2000) Solidarity Blues: Race, Culture and the American Left. Chapel hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.

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Grandma’s Story: Trinh T. Minh-Ha on Storytelling and Truth

Grandma’s Story is the final chapter of Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism by Trinh T. Minh-Ha. My favourite chapter I confess because it opened up horizons, and also sang with the words of Leslie Marmon Silko among others, whose words I have always loved.

It is written beautifully, interspersed with stills from film, the language difficult, rewarding. It works to overflow, expand, burst open the limits of Western intellectual thought the way that stories do without trying.

Why this battle for truth and on behalf of truth? I do not remember having asked grandmother once whether the story she was telling me was true or not. (120)

It is a language of possibility, of what is still unknown (and there is so much we don’t know).

If we rely on history to tell us what happened in a specific time and place, we can rely on the story to tell us not only what might have happened, but also what is happening at an unspecified time and place. (120)

It is a language of the interstices, freed from boundaries.

On the one hand, each society has its own politics of truth; on the other hand, being truthful is being in the in-between of all regimes of truth. Outside specific time, outside specialized space. (121)

And it is bigger than we are.

Truth does not make sense; it exceeds meaning and exceeds measure. It exceeds all regimes of truth. (123)

Above all, it is not ours, but builds on and also builds our communities and our connections.

Storytelling, the oldest form of building historical consciousness in community, constitutes a rich oral legacy, whose values have regained all importance recently, especially in the context of writings by women of color. (148)

And so we repeat our stories, tell them as fragments of the whole and as the whole itself, always changing as living things change, depending on circumstances, depending on who is speaking and who is listening, depending on many things that cannot be separated out. It is this unity in flux, this complex fluidity that can embrace the world and our place in it in multiple different ways that renders useless so many conventions of western fiction separated so starkly from western academic work or philosophizing.

But it is particularly difficult for a dualistic or dualistically trained mind to recognize that “looking for the structure of their narratives” already involves the separation of the structure from the narratives, of the structure from that which is structured, of the narrative from the narrated, and so on. It is, once more, as if form and content stand apart; as if the structure can remain fixed, immutable, independent of and unaffected by the changes the narratives undergo; as if a structure can only function as a standard mold within the old determinist schema of cause and product. (141)

This chapter struck me so forcibly after reading Barbara Fields on race and ideology, which forced me once again to confront the ability of people — most problematically white people — to maintain widely contradictory beliefs about others, often completely at odds with lived experience. This embodies the power of certain narratives shoring up power and privilege, as well as the inability of dualistic thinking to really grapple with them, the need to look in many places for a way of communicating that can build the world we hope to see.

Minh-ha also describes a very different way of working within the wider community, of relating to others. Imagine how much more powerful the kind of story embodied by theorising could be if this were true, as it should be true of all those who are in the struggle to transform the world:

I memorize, recognize, and name my source(s), not to validate my voice through the voice of authority…but to evoke her and sing. (122)

And transform the world we will.

Each woman, like each people, has her own way of unrolling the ties that bind. (148)

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Barbara Fields on Class, Race and Racism

A classic and groundbreaking piece from Barbara Fields, ‘Ideology and Race in American History’ is such a brilliant piece of work, a foundation that made so much other work possible on the concrete and changing historical formations of socially constructed ideas of race. A fight that still needs fighting because this is still true:

It is my intention to suggest that Americans, including many historians, tend to accord race a transhistorical, almost metaphysical, status that removes it from all possibility of analysis and understanding. Ideologies, including those of race, can be properly analyzed only at a safe distance from their terrain. To assume, by intention or default, that race is a phenomenon outside history is to take up a position within the terrain of racialist ideology and to become its unknowing-and therefore uncontesting-victim.

The first false move in this direction is the easiest: the assumption that race is an observable physical fact, a thing, rather than a notion that is profoundly and in its very essence ideological.(144)

Thus the construction of race must be studied in its social and ideological context.

Race is a product of history, not of nature. And as an element of ideology, it is best understood in connection with other elements of ideology and not as a phenomenon sui generis. Only when set next to contemporary ideas having nothing to do with race can ideas about race be placed in the context of the ideological ensemble of which they form a part.(152)

I am still not as familiar with this early period as I should be. Fields looks at Walter Rodney’s study of the Portuguese, and the complex relationships between Europeans and the people along upper Guinea Coast:

They were capable, as are all human beings, of believing things that in strict logic are not compatible. No trader who had to confront and learn to placate the power of an African chief could in practice believe that Africans were docile, childlike, or primitive. The practical circumstances in which Europeans confronted Africans in Africa make nonsense of any attempt to encompass Europeans’ reactions to Africans within the literary stereotypes that scholars have traced through the ages as discrete racial attitudes. (148)

I think this is a key point, and one that bears repeating because I still find it shocks me every time I see anew the extent to which human beings are capable of being perfectly at ease with a common sense view of the world that incorporates completely conflicting views.

The idea one people has of another, even when the difference between them is embodied in the most striking physical characteristics, is always mediated by the social context within which the two come into contact. This remains true even when time-honored tradition provides a vocabulary for thinking and talking about the other people that runs counter to immediate experience. In that case, the vocabulary and the experience simply exist side by side … An understanding of how groups of people see other groups in relation to themselves must begin by analyzing the pattern of their social relations-not by enumerating “attitudes” which, endowed with independent life, are supposed to act upon the historical process from outside, passing through it like neutrinos to emerge unchanged at the other end.

The view that race is a biological fact, a physical attribute of
individuals, is no longer tenable. (148-49)

The sarcasm in here is something to relish. She later writes:

Precisely because ideologies consist of contradictory and inconsistent elements, they can undergo fundamental change simply through the reshuffling of those elements into a different hierarchy. (154)

This echoes Stuart Hall’s idea of articulation, and how formations change over time. Similar also, perhaps, to his focus on understanding the work that changing, and highly conflicted constructions of race performs is this:

In the end we cannot resolve the problem quantitatively, by the addition of example and counterexample. We can resolve it only by posing the question “What kind of social reality is reflected-or refracted – in an ideology built on a unity of these particular opposites?” … If ideology is a vocabulary for interpreting social experience, and thus both shapes and is shaped by that experience, it follows that even the “same” ideology must convey different. meanings to people having different social experiences.(155)

But this argues a more complex understanding I think, where very different understandings and experiences of race exist  depending on personal history, experience and positionality — which opens up room in thinking about alliances and where change can happen. I wrestle so much with the relationship between class and race, the pitfalls and possibilities of solidarity along class lines rather than the continuous fracturing along lines of race, and so found her views on their nature and articulation particularly interesting:

Class and race are concepts of a different order; they do not occupy the same analytical space, and thus cannot constitute explanatory alternatives to each other.15

class is a concept that we can locate both at the level of objective reality and at the level of social appearances. Race is a concept that we can locate at the level of appearances only. A material reality underlies it all right, as must be true of any ideology; but the underlying reality is not the one that the language of racial ideology addresses. … because class and race are not equivalent concepts, it is erroneous to offer them as alternatives to each other; and because any thorough social analysis must move simultaneously at the level of objective reality and at that of appearances, it is self-defeating to attempt to do so.(151)

This creates a very different view of white supremacy — not in the totality of its effects but in how it is understood and…er…practiced (?) by different groups. She writes:

White supremacy is a slogan, not a belief.29 And it is a slogan that cannot have meant the same to all white people. Those who invoke it as a way of minimizing the importance of class diversity in the South overlook this simple but basic point….

But white supremacy was not simply a summary of color prejudices. It was also a set of political programs, differing according to the social position of their proponents. Prejudices fed into them, naturally; but so far from providing a unifying element, they were as likely as not to accentuate the latent possibilities for discord. (156)

This is actually a rather hopeful understanding of white supremacy perhaps, one that can be levered apart, maybe dismantled little by little. Maybe. Though it’s complicated, right? A holistic view also shows how multiple aspects of life prop up understandings of white supremacy, and even life experience does not necessarily challenge that.

But racial ideology constituted only one element of the whole ideology of each class. And it is the totality of the elements and their relation to each other that gives the whole its form and direction; not the content of one isolated element, which in any case is bound to be contradictory. (158)

Thus:

Racial prejudice is sufficiently fluid and at home with contrariety to be able to precede and survive dramatic instances of interracial unity in action.37

Pretty depressing. It highlights the necessity of work in the Freirean tradition where action is always followed by reflection. But how better to describe some of those who have brought Trump to power and continue to support him in face of everything:

The racialism of the black-belt elite, after all, carried with it the luster of victory. That of the white common people became ever more tightly bound up with the rancor of hard blows and final defeat, as they watched the basis of their proud independence eroded by economic and social forces with which they were finally unable to cope. Their rancor became pervasive in the cultural atmosphere of the South and lent itself to demagogic manipulation by politicians seeking to turn it to electoral advantage. But it could never be fully assuaged; quite the contrary. Arising from a bleak day-to-day experience to which the slogans and rituals of white supremacy offered no material solution, that rancor only grew larger the more it was fed. (159)

This kind of gives me chills it makes so much sense — especially the extra-chill factor of the bolded bit.

A racialist ideology harnessed to a ruling-class will, intention, and capacity to dominate both blacks and whites may be characterized by a patronizing tolerance, while that of a rednecks’ movement to unseat their white masters may be virulent and homicidal.38 … Historical analysis cannot distinguish these positions as “more” and “less” racist. Rather, they represent the different shape of the space occupied by racialism in different ideological ensembles. To think of them as different quantities of the same ideological substance is fundamentally mistaken. (160)

Academia and the non-profit world are both rife with examples of ‘patronising tolerance’, I find so useful this understanding of the distinction between the two. We have to look to history to understand the shapes of these ‘spaces occupied by racialism’, always a key to US politics from its beginnings with slavery.

Slavery thus became a “racial” question, and spawned an endless variety of “racial” problems. Race became the ideological medium through which people posed and apprehended basic questions of power and dominance, sovereignty and citizenship, justice and right. (162)

This is echoed in Roediger, who has done some of the best work in understanding how this space has been shaped. His work also supports Fields’ argument that it just didn’t have to turn out this way, that this was not in fact what most people wanted.

While the freedmen were being hustled into the market economy at the well-intentioned (though not always disinterested) initiative of various groups of Yankees, the white yeomanry was also being drawn into that economy: in their case, through a combination of indebtedness and complex changes in law and social usage that followed in the wake of the Civil War. Both groups, as more and more studies make clear, would have preferred a different outcome.52 Secure tenure of land and peace in which to pursue essentially self-sufficient farming, with only incidental resort to the market, would have suited their desires more than conscription willy-nilly into the world of commercialized agriculture, with its ginners, merchants, storekeepers, moneylenders, and crop liens. There never was much chance that they would get the kind of world they wanted. (166)

Fucking capitalism. Zombie capitalism even. I don’t think she gets the credit for the term, and I am not sure this is dialectical enough for me, but I love this imagery:

It is not that ideas have a life of their own, but rather that they have a boundless facility for usurping the lives of men and women. In this they resemble those creatures of horror fiction who, having neither body nor life of their own, take over the bodies and lives of human beings. The history of racialist ideologies provides excellent examples. (153)

I will end where Field ends:

Race is neither the reflex of primordial attitudes nor a tragically
recurring central theme. It became the ideological medium through which Americans confronted questions of sovereignty and power because the enslavement of Africans and their descendants constituted a massive exception to the rules of sovereignty and power that were increasingly taken for granted. And, despite the changes it has undergone along the way, race has remained a predominant ideological medium because the manner of slavery’s unraveling had lasting consequences for the relations of whites to other whites, no less than for those of whites to blacks. There are no tragic flaws or central themes in which to take shelter, however reluctantly. There are only acts and decisions of men and women in a society now past, and a responsibility which, because the outcome remains provisional, we are obliged to share with them. (168-169)

Barbara Fields, “Ideology and Race in American History,” in Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward. Ed. Morgan J. Koussar and James McPherson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, 143-177)

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Robert F. Williams on White Racism

While the bulk of Negroes With Guns deals with self-defense and the story of trying to organise for political, racial and economic equality in Monroe, North Carolina, Robert F. Williams also gives some real thought to the problem of white racism. Know your enemy. He writes:

What has happened and continues to happen in Monroe,
N.C., illustrates an old truth: that words used in common
by all men do not always have a meaning common to
all men. Men have engaged in life-or-death struggles because
of differences of meaning in a commonly-used word. The
white racist believes in “freedom,” he believes in “fair trial,”
he believes in “justice.” He sincerely believes in these words
and can use them with great emotion because to the white
racist they mean his freedom to deprive Negroes of their
basic human rights and his courts where a “fair trial” is that
procedure and “justice” that decision which upholds the
racist’s mad ideal of white supremacy. On many desperate
occasions when our constitutional rights were denied and
our lives were in danger, we called on the Justice Department
and the FBI to investigate the Monroe situation, to protect
our lives and to restore our constitutional rights-in
other words, to administer justice. And they always refused
our request. (54)

It can still shock me, I realise, to read those words written decades ago and realise how true they still are. These words still ring with emotion in the mouths of Trump supporters, don’t they. Without understanding this dissonance, there is no other way to explain patriotic white discourse around ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ and ‘justice’, when at the same time children are being shot dead and nothing happens to their uniformed (or even non-uniformed) killers. When the NRA can defend to the death the right to carry any kind of arms whatsoever with no controls at all ever. Unless you are Black.

An aside to say that Robert F. Williams actually formed a chapter of the NRA while they were training with guns. That has a sweet taste to it, though some bitterness too.

I appreciate a section with the title:

Minds Warped by Racism

Because you can see it, and it is not pretty. Williams continues:

We have come to comprehend the nature of racism. It is a mass psychosis. When I have described racial conditions in the United States to audiences of foreign newsmen, Cubans and other Latin Americans, they have been shocked to learn of the depths of American race hatred. (72)

I, too, am still continuously shocked. Stretching from the hatred directed at Sandra Bland or Trayvon Martin to those gloating white faces over bodies that had been lynched and burned, it can only be a kind of psychosis. That is too easy a word really, it needs more unpacking from the likes of Fromm and others. But it begs the question of an adequate strategy in its murderous face. Williams asks:

Why do the white liberals ask us to be non-violent? We are not the aggressors; we have been victimized for over 300 years! Yet nobody spends money to go into the South and ask the racists to be martyrs or pacifists. But they always come to the downtrodden Negroes, who are already oppressed and too submissive as a group, and ask them not to fight back. There seems to be a pattern of some sort of strange coincidence of interest when whites preach a special doctrine to Negroes. Like the choice of theology when the plantation-owners saw to the Christianization of the slaves. Instead of the doctrines which produced the rugged aggressively independent and justice-seeking spirit that we associate with Colonial America as the New England Conscience, the slaves were indoctrinated in the most submissive “trust-your-master,” “pie-in-the-sky after-you-die” form of Christianity. (75)

Even Martin Luther King would tire of this liberal refrain. Nor did he have an entirely easy relationship to strict non-violence. The very real threat of violence meant that many communities he visited armed themselves and sat watch to protect him, as they did for the youth of CORE and SNCC — Cobb writes of this across the South. Williams was not alone in his assessment of white violence, and the means to prevent it.

This is one of the more eloquent statements on self-defense, and the challenge even this poses to white liberals, that I have read:

This fear of extermination is a myth which we have exposed in Monroe. We did this because we came to an active understanding of the racist system and grasped the relationship between violence and racism. The existence of violence is at the very heart of a racist system. The Afro-American militant is a “militant” because he defends himself, his family, his home and his dignity. He does not introduce violence into a racist social system-the violence is already there and has always been there. It is precisely this unchallenged violence that allows a racist social system to perpetuate itself. When people say that they are opposed to Negroes “resorting to violence” what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists. We have shown in Monroe that with violence working both ways constituted law will be more inclined to keep the peace. (76)

I put my favourite part in bold, but I like all of it. I like the acknowledgment that it is through lack of challenge that the system perpetuates itself, which means all of it needs to be challenged. I like the questions this raises for piecemeal change — not that we don’t need small steps to move forward, but that we should understand that they are steps. I feel that he understood both the potential and the limits of the Montgomery bus boycott before most commentators and civil rights leaders did (Ella Baker is one clear exception to this of course, I know there were others):

The Montgomery bus boycott was a victory-but it was limited. It did not raise the Negro standard of living. It did not mean better education for Negro children, it did not mean economic advances. Just what was the issue at hand for the white racists? What sacrifice? Remember that in Montgomery most white Americans have automobiles and are not dependent on the buses. It is just like our own experience in Monroe when we integrated the library. I called the chairman of the board in my county. I told him that I represented the NAACP, that we wanted to integrate the library, and that our own library had burned down. And he said, “Well, I don’t see any reason why you can’t use the same library that our people use. It won’t make any difference. After all, I don’t read anyway.” Now, this is the attitude of a lot of white Southerners about the Montgomery bus boycott. The white people who control the city didn’t ride the buses anyway. They had their own private cars, so it didn’t make any difference to them. But when Afro-Americans get into the struggle for the right to live as human beings and the right to earn the same amount of money, then they’ll meet the greatest amount of resistance, and out of it will come police-condoned or inspired violence. (77-78)

The limits came from how little it challenged the true structures of Black oppression — though it is terrifying really, even now, just how hard they had to fight for such a small change.

An inspirational chapter title:

“The Future Belongs to Today’s Oppressed”

And finally, the fact that Williams never did give up on the struggle, nor on white people. His theory, that they needed an honest look at themselves:

Whenever I speak on the English-language radio station in Havana (which broadcasts for an audience in the United States) I hope in some way to penetrate the mental barriers and introduce new disturbing elements into the consciousness of white America. I hope to make them aware of the monstrous evil that they are party to by oppressing the Negro. Somehow, I must manage to clearly reflect the image of evil that is inherent in a racist society so that white Americans will be able to honestly and fully see themselves as they really are. To see themselves with the same clarity as foreigners see them and to recognize that they are not champions of democracy. To understand that today they do not really even believe in democracy. To understand that the world is changing regardless of whether they think they like it or not. For I know that if they had a glimpse of their own reality the shock would be of great therapeutic value. (85)

An honest look is still what is needed. Wendell Berry too talks about the need for a double consciousness required from this level of injustice inflicted on another groups of human beings, the illusion-building needed and the distortions that it has caused. But instead of taking a hard look, those who most need it have elected, and continue to support a president handing out nothing but lies.

Not that we all don’t need a good long look in the mirror on a regular basis.

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Negroes with Guns: Robert F. Williams and the Freedom Struggle

Negroes With Guns by Robert F Williams is really something — as if the name of it didn’t give that away. After Philando Castile, after the shootings that keep happening and happening with impunity this felt so good to read. We watched Fred Williamson stand up to white violence in the N**ger Charlie trio of films over the past few weekends too — such brilliant Westerns in their Blaxploitation way, I can’t believe they’re not available in better quality film. Even if us white folks can never ask for them by name. All of it has been cathartic in the face of despair, though much of that despair grows out of police impunity, and this is probably not the right strategy to end that. I wish I knew what was.

Negroes With Guns sounds badass, and it is, but not in that way that men get when they try and out-badass each other without actually managing true badassness. These are wise and well-considered, well-defended, and well-grounded words from a man who puts most of those others to shame. No wonder it inspired the Black Panthers so much (and I imagine Blaxploitation films just like the one above), if only they’d stuck to a committed revolutionary ethos just a little more…

The book was written in Cuba, which welcomed so many Black exiles of the revolution, and opens:

Why do I speak to you from exile?

Because a Negro community in the South took up guns in self-defense against racist violence-and used them. (3)

I quote his summation of his philosophy at length:

Because there has been much distortion of my position, I wish to make it clear that I do not advocate violence for its own sake or for the sake of reprisals against whites. Nor am I against the passive resistance advocated by the Reverend Martin Luther King and others. My only difference with Dr. King is that I believe in flexibility in the freedom struggle. This means that I believe in non-violent tactics where feasible; the mere fact that I have a Sit-In case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court bears this out. Massive civil disobedience is a powerful weapon under civilized conditions where the law safeguards the citizens’ right of peaceful demonstrations. In civilized society the law serves as a deterrent against lawless forces that would destroy the democratic process. But where there is a breakdown of the law, the individual citizen has a right to protect his person, his family, his home and his property. To me this is so simple and proper that it is self-evident.

When an oppressed people show a willingness to defend themselves, the enemy, who is a moral weakling and coward, is more willing to grant concessions and work for a respectable compromise. Psychologically, moreover, racists consider themselves superior beings and are not willing to exchange their superior lives for our inferior ones. They are most vicious and violent when they can practice violence with impunity. This we have shown in Monroe. Moreover, when because of our self-defense there is a danger that the blood of whites may be spilled, the local authorities in the South suddenly enforce law and order when previously they had been complacent toward lawless, racist violence. This too we have proven in Monroe. It is remarkable how easily and quickly state and local police control and disperse law-less mobs when the Negro is ready to defend himself with arms. (4-5)

Nothing could be more clear than that, nor, I think, much more reasonable. Especially after hearing his story. He was a WWII veteran and served in the Marines where he was trained to fight, trained to respect himself — Monroe, North Carolina demanded he do neither. He joined the NAACP on his return there at a time when it was under fierce attack from white supremacists (as all NAACP chapters were after Brown v Board). He writes:

When I joined the local chapter of the NAACP it was going down in membership, and when it was down to six, the leadership proposed dissolving it. When I objected, I was elected president and they withdrew, except for Dr. Albert E. Perry. … I tried to get former members back without success and finally I realized that I would have to work without the social leaders of the community.

So he drew on previous life experience — and that was of northern unions, even though he had not joined he had learned. A lesson in that I think, both in what the union missed, but also in the ripples it set in motion…

At this time I was inexperienced. Before going into the
Marines I had left Monroe for a time and worked in an aircraft
factory in New Jersey and an auto factory in Detroit. Without knowing it, I had picked up some ideas of organizing from the activities around me … So one day I walked into a Negro poolroom in our town, interrupted a game by putting NAACP literature on the table and made a pitch. I recruited half of those present…. We ended up with a chapter that was unique in the whole NAACP because of working class composition and a leadership that was not middle class. Most important, we had a strong representation of returned veterans who were very militant (14)

Williams continues:

In the summer of 1957 they made one big attempt to stop us. An armed motorcade attacked Dr. Perry’s house, which is situated on the outskirts of the colored community. We shot it out with the Klan and repelled their attack and the Klan didn’t have any more stomach for this type of fight. They stopped raiding our community. After this clash the same city officials who said the Klan had a constitutional right to organize met in an emergency session and passed a city ordinance banning the Klan from Monroe without a special permit from the police chief. (19)

Some pictures.

Self defense worked. To the extent that armed raids of the KKK wouldn’t be happening any more, which was no small thing. It didn’t do anything to integrate the community, make individuals going about their daily business much safer, or improve conditions, but it made a space possible for work to happen to try and do all of these.

I love that Robert Williams wanted to do all of it. Everything.

I was more convinced than ever that one of our greatest and most immediate needs was better communication within the race. The real Afro-American struggle was merely a disjointed network of pockets of resistance and the shameful thing about it was that Negroes were relying upon the white man’s inaccurate reports as their sources of information about these isolated struggles. I went home and concentrated all of my efforts into developing a newsletter … (29)

Robert Williams thought big, his branch of the NAACP would become so inspirational in the way it tried to moved beyond racial integration to the deeper causes:

In our branch of the NAACP there was a general feeling that we were in a deep and bitter struggle against racists and that we needed to involve as many Negroes as possible and to make the struggle as meaningful as possible. … what we needed was a broad program with special attention to jobs, welfare, and other economic needs.

I think this was an important step forward. The struggles of the Freedom Riders and the Sit-In Movements have concentrated on a single goal: the right to eat at a lunch counter, the right to sit anywhere on a bus. These are important rights because their denial is a direct personal assault on a Negro’s dignity. … By debasing and demoralizing the black man in small personal matters, the system eats away the sense of dignity and pride which are necessary to challenge a racist system. But the fundamental core of racism is more than atmosphere-it can be measured in dollars and cents… (38)

They had their own 10-point platform — I think I knew that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale had read this and done their own ten point platform accordingly, but I’m not sure I did. Such a platform is such a good way to inspire people to join in struggle and to know in broad terms what it is you struggle for:

On Aug. 15, 196 1 , on behalf of our Chapter I presented to the Monroe Board of Aldermen a ten point program that read as follows:
PETITION
We, the undersigned citizens of Monroe, petition the City
Board of Aldermen to use its influence to endeavor to:

  1. Induce factories in this county to hire without discrimination.
  2. Induce the local employment agency to grant non-whites the same privileges given to whites.
  3. Instruct the Welfare Agency that non-whites are entitled to the same privileges, courtesies and consideration given to whites.
  4. Construct a swimming pool in the Winchester Avenue area of Monroe.
  5. Remove all signs in the city of Monroe designating one area for colored and another for whites.
  6. Instruct the Superintendent of Schools that he must prepare to desegregate the city school no later than 1962.
  7. Provide adequate trasportation for all school children.
  8. Formally request the State Medical Board to permit Dr. Albert E. Perry, Jr., to practice medicine in Monroe and Union County.
  9. Employ Negroes in skilled or supervisory capacities in the City Government.
  10. ACT IMMEDIATELY on all of these proposals and inform the committee and the public of your actions.

(signed)
Robert F. Williams
Albert E. Perry, Jr. , M.D.
John W. McDow (39)

They emphasise always the economic dimensions of oppression as they connect to racial ones:

we believe that the basic ill is an economic ill, our being denied the right to have a decent standard of living. (40)

Such a difference from the national NAACP office is clearly due both to the character of Williams, Perry and McDow, but also the melting away of the professionals from the Monroe branch of the NAACP under threat of violence, and the recruitment of a working class base. This positionality gave a very different understanding of goals and strategy than those embraced by much of the Civil Rights Movement. Williams writes:

On these peripheral matters, leaders of the Sit-In Movements can meet with city and state officials and win concessions. I believe this is an important part of the overall Negro struggle. But when these concessions are used for propaganda by Negro “leaders” as examples of the marvelous progress the Afro-American is supposedly making, thereby shifting attention from the basic evils, such victories cease to be even peripheral and become self-defeating. When we tackle basic evils, however, the racists won’t give an inch.

He continues — this is not just ideological but practical:

This, I think, is why the Freedom Riders who came to Monroe met with such naked violence and brutality. That and the pledge of non-violence. (41)

He writes quite compellingly about white racism, that will be blog number two on this book. I’ll just end with a little more on how Williams saw Black struggle. First, the chapter title that gives a truth that has bedeviled every movement in the US for the past hundred years:

“Every Freedom Movement in the U.S.A. Is Labeled ‘Communist’ ” (79)

And his final words on self-defense — they echoed something Ella Baker said actually, and made me laugh.

We know that the average Afro-American is not a pacifist. He is not a pacifist and he has never been a pacifist and he is not made of the type of material that would make a good pacifist. Those who doubt that the great majority of Negroes are not pacifists, just let them slap one. Pick any Negro on any street corner in the U.S.A. and they will find out how much he believes in turning the other cheek. All those who dare to attack are going to learn the hard way that the Afro-American is not a pacifist, that he cannot forever be counted on not to defend himself. Those who attack him brutally and ruthlessly can no longer expect to attack him with impunity.

The Afro-American cannot forget that his enslavement in this country did not pass because of pacifist moral force or noble appeals to the Christian conscience of the slaveholders. (83)

Williams quotes Thoreau writing in praise of John Brown, and the need for violence at that point in time — almost makes me want to go read Thoreau again.

And finally, on global solidarity. I love how he broadens out of the civil rights movement, it feels so rare until you get to SNCC, and the drive of the youth to connect to anti-Colonial struggle. His travels meant Williams could flee to Cuba when he realised the nature of the trumped up charges against him from that fateful night (a full account is found in the book,I won’t repeat it here), and the threat his life was under. I am still so furious that he should have had to spend his days in exile though I know charges were later dropped…

In discussion of the global struggle in his newsletter, he writes:

It was clear from the first days that Afro-Cubans were part of the Cuban revolution on a basis of complete equality and my trips confirmed this fact. A Negro, for example, was head of the Cuban armed forces and no one could hide that fact from us here in America. To me this revolution was a real thing, not one of those phony South American palace revolutions. There was a real drive to bring social justice to all the Cubans, including the black ones. (31-32)

And later:

My cause is the same as the Asians against the imperialist. It is the same as the African against the white savage. It is the same as Cuba against the white supremacist imperialist. When I become a part of the mainstream of American life, based on universal justice, then and then only can I see a possible mutual cause for unity against outside interference.” (35)

To end…Robert Williams in Cuba:

And I can’t resist a last look at The Legend of N**ger Charlie. Blaxploitation film isn’t my area of expertise at all nor do I enjoy many of them, but these Westerns were fantastic, sexy, fierce. They embodied much of what Robert Williams wrote. A pride in self against a world of disrespect and violence, and  recognition of the need to fight which was so taken for granted in those times when it seemed perhaps everything might change. Over and over again that fight ends in tragedy, but Charlie keeps fighting. As did Williams, as  must we. If only we could all be that damn fine while doing it.

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What Ella Baker really thought about Baptist Ministers

Ella BakerThis is from an interview Ella Baker did with Eugene Walker in 1974 (the transcript is here, audio is here), who was most interested in the formation of SCLC and the key influences on it, so there isn’t follow up on many of Baker’s responses — but that’s always the way it is with other people’s interviews. Even so, it is a great complement to the various biographies. She was 71 years old, and very focused on the two widely different approaches to the work at play here — the bottom up current which she fought for, and the very very top down…

Well, the thinking about the nature of the organization would vary with the people who were doing the thinking. Those of us who preferred an organization that was democratic and where the decision making was left with the people would think in one vein and the organizing of active, let’s call it, chapters or units of people. But when you reckon with the fact that a majority of the people who were called together were ministers and the decision as to who was called together emanated no doubt both from the background out of which (let’s call it) Martin came and maybe lack of understanding (I’m willing to say) of the virtue of utilizing the mass surge that had developed there in Montgomery. Just look at Montgomery. What has happened since Montgomery? (12-13)

When Baker started work for the SCLC she was already an old hand at organising and movement building, but the ministers certainly weren’t — I can’t really imagine what it was like for her.

When you haven’t been accustomed to mass action, and they weren’t… You see basically your ministers are not people who go in for decisions on the part of people. I don’t know whether you realize it or not. And they had been looked upon as saviors. So what happened is, here they are faced with a suggestion that goes against the grain and with which they are not prepared to deal. So they come together. (14)

She knew it would be hard, didn’t really choose her role — so for her initially (once she had been bludgeoned into it) she planned to set up citizen committees, and then get out of the SCLC:

I had anticipated being there for about six weeks. Gave myself four weeks to get the thing going and two weeks to clean it up. But they had no one. How did they get Rev. Tilly? They wanted a minister. I knew that. They couldn’t have tolerated a woman.

The personality that had to be played up was Dr. King. The other organizations (if you know this), the executive director was the spokesman. But they couldn’t tolerate having an old lady, even a lady, and an old lady at that. It was too much for the masculine and ministerial ego to have permitted that. [Laughter] There you are. (19)

Asked about her early strategic input on SCLC to bring in more women and youth, Baker replies

I guess my own experience but basically in terms of the church. All of the churches depended in terms of things taking place on women, not men. Men didn’t do the things that had to be done and you had a large number of women who were involved in the bus boycott. They were the people who kept the spirit going and the young people. I knew that the young people were the hope of any movement. It was just a normal thing to me. The average Baptist minister didn’t really know organization.

She is able to talk a little more about the distrust between the NAACP, the Urban League and CORE, and to a lesser extent SCLC — primarily around strategy.:

You see, they couldn’t trust C.O.R.E. [Laughter] in their minds. What you have there is the division between those who have some respect for mass action and pressure and those who believe that your best results came from negotiations from the knowledgeable people. The negotiations from the knowledgeable and the legal action were the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League. (29)

Baker underlines the autocratic way she was ordered into the SCLC by Levinson and Rustin, as part of the In Friendship group they had formed to support the formation of a group after Montgomery.

They came back and told me that I had been drafted to go to Atlanta to set up the program for the Crusade for Citizenship for these twenty-odd meetings. Prior to that it had been assumed that Bayard would go down, but he was not available, let’s say. I was very provoked because I had never in my life.

EUGENE WALKER: Well, let me ask you this. This is the first major civil rights undertaking in the history of this country whereby a woman has been granted a seemingly, ostensibly significant policy-making kind of position. Now, were you taken by that? Was that gratifying to you?

ELLA BAKER: [Laughter] Oh no, no, no, no. Because I knew I didn’t have any significant role in the minds of those who constituted the organization. I’m sure that basically the assumption is, or was, and perhaps the assumption still prevails in the minds of those who remember my being there, that I was just there to carry out the orders of Dr. King and somebody else, but incidental since there was no designation of authority. I wasn’t a person of authority.

More about the significant obstacles Baker had to climb over as a woman:

The average attitude toward the southern Baptist ministers at that stage, and maybe still, was as far as their own women were concerned were that they were nice to talk to about such things as how well they cooked, how beautiful they looked, and how well they carried out a program that the minister had delegated them to carry out but not a person with independence and creative ideas of his own, but on whom they had to rely. They could not tolerate, and I can understand that they couldn’t, and especially from a person like me because I was not the kind of person that made special effort to be ingratiating. I didn’t try to insult but I did not hesitate to be positive about the things with which I agreed or disagreed. I might be quiet but if there was discussion and I was suppose to be able to participate, I participated at the level of my thinking. (53)

You like her more and more…The point of the SCLC for Baker:

The whole concept was we needed in the South a mass based organization that might further the involvement of masses of people similar to what had taken place in Montgomery. It didn’t have to be a bus boycott, but whatever. I think this is it. (63)

But she also emphasis the lack of deeper thought behind the movement —  because of their inexperience, because of the speed with which things happened. And of course, unstated, because of their inability to listen to those who did have experience, primarily Baker herself.:

the personnel who provided the leadership for S.C.L.C. had never come to grips with a philosophical concept other than the general concept of nonviolent mass action. I don’t think there was much—I’ll be gracious and say—either time or other bases for in-depth thinking about how far non-violent mass action can go and to what extent can you really involve people. You see, you may talk about it but when you respond—as the organization did—to situations—their major efforts were in response to situations—and when you exhaust yourself in situations (65)

The problem of always responding — who amongst us who has worked in movement-building organisation doesn’t know all about that? Baker’s real strength was in being able to create space to think bigger — and the SCLC did little to appreciate or utilise that skill.

She used that to the hilt in SNCC’s formation, however, and emphasises how important it was that SNCC be free of the others to escape their very real constraints and limits of their political thought — and how this is precisely what was most resisted by other groups:

I think the basic reason for the reactions of N.A.A.C.P. and S.C.L.C. to S.N.C.C. is the fact that they elected to be independent and they exercised the independence that only young people or unattached people, those who are not caught in a framework of thought, can exercise.

They were open to ideas that would not have been certainly cherished, or in some instances certainly, tolerated by either the N.A.A.C.P. or S.C.L.C. As a chief example, the moving into Mississippi. When they decided, they called it “Move On Mississippi” and they called it “MOM”. I think a delegation went to talk to Thurgood Marshall, who was then the chief counsel of the N.A.A.C.P. regarding this and to seek legal help. And Thurgood was not responsive. In the first place because the young people had expressed the opinion and the determination that they were going to accept help from wherever they could get it. Which meant that people like Crocket in Troy and other members of what is called the National Lawyers [unclear] —many white lawyers—which is leftist oriented, would be objectionable to the N.A.A.C.P. because they didn’t want to introduce this conflict of ideologies, of pro-communist ideology, and leave themselves open to the charge on the part of the authorities that the communists were taking over. (71-72)

There are some nice small commentaries on Black historians — so I love the moment when she says ‘Yes, I love Vincent (Harding).’ Then there’s an aside on Harold Cruse (who has been transcribed as Cruz)

I can look back probably at a book by Harold Cruse —I don’t remember seeing his name mentioned in Cruse’s book.
ELLA BAKER: Cruse is an embittered soul too, isn’t he?
EUGENE WALKER: It’s so evident when you look into his book. Oh, he’s embittered; he’s exceptionally candid in saying whatever he wants to say about anybody. He attacks everybody…
ELLA BAKER: …but himself.

She is very critical of the Baptist ministerial tradition — this was so good for me to read because these comments brought it home to me in a way nothing else has done. She’s critical of King in how fearful he remained of open dialogue — though I know he was better than others of that tradition.

ELLA BAKER: No. I don’t care how much reading you do, if you haven’t had the interchange of dialogue and confrontation with others you can be frightened by someone who comes and is in a position to confront you.
EUGENE WALKER: Especially if they confront you with an air of security and independence.
ELLA BAKER: Yes, and if they come with their own credentials. There was an insecurity, I think. I don’t know whether he was ever aware of it. It was a natural insecurity coming out of that Baptist tradition. Baptist ministers have never been strong on dialogue; it was dictum. (77)

I just  I love how she is well aware of how insecurity is not driven away by degrees, position or book-learning. Just as she is aware that being open to others is real strength. That so much was accomplished despite the weaknesses highlighted here… there is so much we owe the women of the South, and especially Ella Baker.

 

Interview with Ella Baker, September 4, 1974.
Interview G-0007. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Baker, Ella, interviewee
http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/G-0007/G-0007.html

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Grief

For him she got clean. For the baby, when he was tiny, still inside her.

She’d tried before. Her mom went and got her. She tried. Went back. Tried again. Family in pieces around her. Love for that man a big pull, heroin a big pull too. You will lie, cheat and steal for both of them. They were something to hold on to in this world that hates Black women, I guess. Something.

Lucky for all of us, love for her son proved stronger than the others. Love for herself seemed to come with it, and that was beautiful to see.

He was born too early, so early, still in his birth sac, a miracle baby. A tiny, beautiful thing.

For him she stayed clean. Counting day by day as you do. Fighting week by week, month by month. Celebrating every anniversary. She stayed clean.

For him she got it together, got a job.

For him she ate better, celebrated filling out again, getting healthy. Had just gone vegetarian. Celebrated her skin clearing. Wore bright red lipstick and amazing great big green-framed glasses and they looked so damn good on her. She had the most beautiful smile.

Two years her family and friends had her back, with life and hope ahead of her.

All for him.

Now lost. The doctors told her something like stomach flu, sent her home. But night before last she died in hospital. Completely unexpected. Total shock.

Lost to her parents, lost to her son, lost to us.

My heart a little more broken.

This morning I woke up to the news because they couldn’t get hold of me yesterday, and I thought how the US just keeps taking and taking. Just keeps killing its children, young mothers and fathers — grandparents still raise our next generation. I am too far to be any help, I grieve at an immeasurable distance.

This morning too I woke to the news of the attack on London Bridge, the deaths in borough market. Just as two weeks ago I woke to the Manchester bombing. In our world torn apart by war and wracked by addiction I know every morning is this morning for so many. If only our love and solidarity could end this. I know we can only do our best, but I want to end this and I know I am not alone but I cannot see our way.

Chester Himes Writes Harlem (and Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones)

Grave Digger took off his hat and rubbed his short kinky hair.
‘This is Harlem,’ he said. ‘Ain’t another place like it in the world. You’ve got to start from scratch here, because these folks in Harlem do things for reasons nobody else in the world would think of. Listen, there were two hard working colored jokers, both with families, got to fighting in a bar over on Fifth Avenue near a hundred-eighteenth Street and cut each other to death about whether Paris was in France or France was in Paris.’

That ain’t nothing,’ Brody laughed. ‘Two Irishmen over in Hell’s kitchen got to arguing and shot each other to death over whether the Irish were descended form the gods or the gods descended from the Irish.’ (52)

I love Chester Himes, take such deep delight in these books for many many reasons. Probably the least of these is how Himes describes Harlem, gives addresses and intersections, signals the character and quality of people by the side of the street they live on, illuminates interiors in all their shocking colour… But I confess, that aspect of his books are pretty fucking cool. There he was in France writing these, a love and hate thing going on for his place, his people. A complex understanding of race and politics form the context, humour the only way for survival, and every now and then a hope for redemption.

It means today I can imagine some of these surroundings in all of their technicolor glory:

Her gaze touched fleetingly on his tight-drawn face and ran off to look for something more serene.

But there wasn’t anything serene in that violently colored room. The overstuffed pea green furniture garnished with pieces of blond wood fought it out with the bright red carpet, but the eyes that had to look at it were the losers.

It was a big front room with two windows on Edgecombe Drive and one window on 159th Street.

She sat on a yellow leather ottoman on the red carpet, facing the blond television-radio-record set that was placed in front of the closed-off fireplace beneath the mantelpiece. (80)

Who would’ve guessed that those rows of forbidding houses down St Nicholas Ave once held such settings? Another one:

They parked in front of the bar at 146th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.

Chink had a room with a window in the fourth-floor apartment on St Nicholas Avenue. He had chosen the black and yellow decor himself and had furnished it in modernistic style. the carpet was black, the chairs yellow, the day bed had a yellow spread, the combination television-record player was black trimmed with yellow on the inside, the curtains were black and yellow striped, and the dressing table and chest of drawers were black.

The record player was stacked with swing classics, and Cootie Williams was doing a trumpet solo in Duke Ellington’s Take the Train. (94)

I am fascinated too, by the way over and again Harlem is emphasized as a place of country folk somehow stuck in the big city, and transforming it to wring what they need from it, be it soul food or be it codes of conduct.

‘Listen boy,’ Coffin Ed said. ‘Brody is a homicide man and solving murders is his business. He goes at it in a routine way like the law prescribes, and if some more people get killed while he’s going about it, that’s just too bad for the victims. But me and Digger are two country Harlem dicks who live in this village and don’t like to see anybody get killed. It might be a friend of ours. So we’re trying to head off another killing.’ (113)

These are from The Crazy Kill (1959). Another thing I love about these books — the covers.

Then there’s All Shot Up (1960):

The apartment was on the fifth and top floor of an old stone-fronted building on 110th street, overlooking the lagoon in upper Central Park.

Colored boys and girls in ski ensembles and ballet skirts were skating the light fantastic at two o’clock…

‘Reminds me of Gorki,’ Grave Digger lisped.

‘The writer or the pawnbroker?’ Coffin Ed asked.

A story about a boy falling through the ice and the villagers search and do not find him and so the question has to be asked, was there ever a boy?

They went silently up the old marble steps and pushed open the old, exquisitely carved wooden doors with cutglass panels.

‘The rich used to live here,’ Coffin Ed remarked.

‘Still do,’ Grave Digger said. ‘Just changed color. Colored rich folks always live in the places abandoned by white rich folks.’

They walked through a narrow, oak-paneled hallway with stained-glass wall lamps to an old rickety elevator. (260)

Reminds me of Gorki? Happiness in a single line. The description of wealth trickling down — and the depth to which it falls also makes my writing-about-race-and-class-and-buildings-and-cities heart go pitter pat. We saw these graceful, beautiful old buildings.

New York - Central Park

More covers…there’s a whole book to be written about covers, and what they say about what publishers are selling.

From The Heat’s On (1961):

So we’re leaving Harlem, moving on to the Bronx briefly…and the abode of Sister Heavenly (this whole set-up, god damn, amazing):

Apartment buildings gave way to pastel-colored villas of southern Italian architecture, garnished with flower gardens and plaster saints. After a while the houses became scattered, interspersed by market gardens and vacant lots overgrown with weeds in which hoboes slept and goats were tethered.

Finally he reached his destination, a weather-stained, one-stories, pink stucco villa at the end of an unfinished street without sidewalks. It was a small house flanked by vacant lots used for rubbish dumps. Oddly enough, it had a large gabled attic. It sat far back of a wire fence enclosing a front yard of burnt grass, dried-up flowers and wildly thriving weeds. in a niche over the front door was a white marble crucifixion of a singularly lean and tortured Christ, encrusted with bird droppings. In other niches at intervals beneath the eaves were all the varicolored plaster sainsts good to the souls of Italian peasants.

All of the front windows were closed and shuttered. Save for the faint sounds of a heavy boogie beat on a piano, the house seemed abandoned. (351)

And we move on from housing and neighbourhoods and cities to music and grief — this from when Coffin Ed thinks Grave Digger has died:

It was a saxophone solo by Lester Young. He didn’t recognize the tune, but it had the ‘Pres’ treatment. His stomach tightened. It was like listening to someone laughing their way toward death. It was laughter dripping wet with tears. Colored people’s laughter. (468)

I’ll end with Blind Man with a Pistol (1969), the last of my Chester Himes reading jag in the run up to actually going to Harlem. I like how it opens with some philosophy:

…all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol.

Again we get down to the spatialities of class position:

Where 125th Street crosses Seventh Avenue is the Mecca of Harlem. To get established there, an ordinary Harlem citizen has reached the promised land, if it merely means standing on the sidewalk.

Himes writes a thick description of streets and bridges, patterns of usage, establishing how this corner means different things, socially and economically and spiritually, to Blacks and to whites. He continues:

Therefore many white people riding the buses or in motor cars pass this corner daily. Furthermore, most of the commercial enterprises–stores, bars, restaurants, theaters, etc.–and real estate are owned by white people.

But it is the Mecca of the black people just the same. The air and the heat and the voices and the laughter, the atmosphere and the drama and the melodrama, are theirs. Theirs are the hopes, the schemes, the prayers and the protest. they are the managers, the clerks, the cleaners, they drive the taxis and buses, they are the clients, the customers, the audience; they work it, but the white man owns it… The black people have the past and the present, and they hope to have the future.

What better explanation of the vast separation between use value and exchange value could you possibly ask for, or the contradictions of capitalism structured by race?

Now this, on tthe car belonging to Coffin Ed and  and Grave Digger Jones, just made me laugh.

…at night it was barely distinguishable from any number of other dented, dilapidated struggle buggies cherished by the citizens of Harlem…

Struggle buggies. I’m going to try and remember that.

More on space and race and class, and how these things confront each other from one side of the street to the other:

Across Lenox Avenue, on the West Side, toward Seventh Avenue, were the original slums with their rat-ridden, cold water flats unchanged, the dirty glass0fronted ground floors occupied by the customary supermarkets with hand -lettered ads on their plate-glass windows reading: “Fully cooked U.S. Govt. Inspected SMOKED HAMS 55c lb…Secret Deodorant ICE-BLUE 79c …

Notion stores with needles and buttons and thread on display…Barbershops…Smokeshops…Billboards..Black citizens sitting on the stops to their cold-water flats in the broiling night….Sports ganged in front of bars sucking marijuana…Grit and dust and dirt and litter floating idly in the hot dense air stirred up by the passing of feet. That was the side of the slum dwellers. the ritzy residents across the street never looked their way.

All of this…how is this not a kind of love song to Harlem? Despite the realities of this:

“Why would anyone live here who was honest?” Grave Digger said. “Or how could anyone honest stay honest who lived here? What do you want? This place was built for vice, for whores to hustle in and thieves to hid out in. And somebody got a building permit, because it’s been built after the ghetto got here.”

This building is owned by Acme Realty — they own a lot of buildings in Harlem, superintendent doesn’t know much else, only they’re all white. There’s more about slum removal:

The New York City government had ordered the demolition of condemned slum buildings on the block of the north side of 125th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, and the residents didn’t have anywhere to go.

Residents from other sections of Harlem were mad because these displaced people would be dumped on them, and their neighborhoods would become slums.

…they were absorbed by the urgency of having to find immediate housing, and they bitterly resented being evicted form the homes where some had been born, and their children had been born, and some had married and friends and relatives had died, no matter if these homes were slum flats that had been condemned as unfit for human dwelling. They had been forced to live there, in all the filth and degradation, until their lives had been warped to fit, and now they were being thrown out. It was enough to make a body riot.

One angry sister,who stood watching from the opposite sidewalk, protested loudly, “They calls this Urban Renewal, I calls it poor folks removal.”

And to end not just with the lies of development and progress, but how those fit within the context of generations of lies. Grave Digger Jones sums up the frustrations of a generation:

And you and me were born just after our pappies had got through fighting a war to make the world safe for democracy. But he difference is that by the time we’d fought in a jim-crow army to whip the Nazis and had come home to our native racism, we didn’t believe any of that shit. We had grown up in the Depression and fought under hypocrites against hypocrites and we’d learned by then that whitey is a liar…

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House as a Mirror of Self: Clare Cooper-Marcus

I quite loved Clare Cooper-Marcus’s book House as a Mirror of Self. I loved the uniqueness of its approach; its fearlessness in connecting the material, the social, the psychological and the spiritual; and the very real insights it develops around the intertwining of our sense of self and our sense of place. Using Jungian therapy is such an interesting methodology for exploring our connections to place, how this is formed in our childhood and how this plays out through our lives. It is a way to get more to the centre of what place really means to us as human beings.

A core theme of this book and the stories within it is the notion that we are all — throughout our lives–striving toward a state of wholeness, of being wholly ourselves. Whether we are conscious of it or not, every relationship, event, mishap, or good fortune in our lives can be preserved as a “teaching,” guiding us toward being more and more fully who we are. Although this has been widely written about, especially by Jungians, what this book adds to the debate is the suggestion that the places we live in are reflections of that process, and indeed the places themselves have a powerful effect on our journey toward wholeness. (10)

In this aspect of the book, it is reminiscent of Bachelard’s work on The Poetics of Space, particularly as Bachelard also attempts it from within a Jungian framework. It helps that Jung built his own house and tied it so explicitly in his work to his own psychological development. I can’t believe I haven’t read it yet. it is trying to get at the same thing Yi-Fu Tuan writes about from the anthropological side of things, which also makes me slightly uncomfortable, though just as interesting.

Anyway, like all good psychoanalysts, Clare Cooper-marcus begins at the beginning.

“First houses are the grounds of our first experiences,” writes Australian novelist David Malouf. “Crawling about at floor level, room by room, we discover laws that we will apply later to the world at large: and who is to say if our notions of space and dimension are not determined for all time by what we encounter there.” (19-20)

I always get a bit uncomfortable on this territory, don’t really like edging towards the psyche — and at the same time I am driven there, recognising that it is only there that many answers can be found in thinking about belonging, as well as things like violence that I have been wrestling with. I felt this way reading Fromm, and I am sure I shall continue to feel this way…

But of course it feels true that most would regard childhood as a sacred period in our lives, and that it is formative in so much of who we are:

We hold the childhood memories of certain places as a kind of psychic anchor, reminding us of where we come from, of what we once were, or of how the physical environment perhaps nurtured us when family dynamics were strained or the context of our lives fraught with uncertainty. (20)

I love this sense of place-making as deeply embedded in our lives and childhoods, think of the desert where I grew up where all of us had places named after us, and we had names for many others…

The designation of special names is an important component of childhood appropriation of space, the beginnings of a lifetime experience with place-making. (25)

She later writes:

To appropriate space, to order and mold it into a form that pleases us and affirms who we are, is a universal need. (68)

So back to the book. Cooper-Marcus qualified as a therapist, worked with people to examine their living spaces as a way of examining their lives. For this reason it was a self-selected group of the middle-class edging upwards — I realise I have no real sense of where middle- and upper-class meet. For so long I thought anyone was rich who had a car they could depend on or pop-tarts for breakfast. Some of the people she interviewed challenged my more mature understandings of middle-classness and sent it skyrocketing upwards. But she is honest and open about this, as well as the ways in which she met people at conferences and through presentations, the nature of her snowball sample in primarily the Oakland Hills, and the limitations of all of that.

The limitations of the well-off talking about housing still really annoyed me at times, but the book was worth it all and engaged with the co-constitutive natures of self and place in a way few other books do, or even could. So a few quotes — though given my interest is in how this intersects with more structural aspects of house and home means I won’t quote quite as extensively as my usual absurd standard. Still, there’s a great quote from Kim Dovey on how some fo these layers come together, and broad meanings of home and belonging:

Home can be a room inside a house, a house within a neighborhood, a neighborhood within a city, and a city within a nation. At each level the meaning of home gains in intensity and depth from the dialectical interaction between the two poles of experience — the place and its context at a larger scale…. Yet the dialectics of home involve more than inside versus outside. Home is a place of security within an insecure world, a place of certainty within doubt, a familiar place in it strange world, a sacred place in a profane world. It is a place of autonomy and power in an increasingly heteronomous world where others make the rules. (“Home and homelessness”, 191)

I loved this on the difference between being able to huild a home and shape it over the years, and not just because this is how I grew up and what I rather long to have now:

…the house is me. Because I built it and because it’s everything I wanted it to be; I think of it really as an extension of our family. It is not an object you buy in a showroom, like a car or a piece of furniture. It’s us. Its imperfections are as revealing to me as its satisfactions, like a friend or member of the family whose imperfections we can see… I don’t think we change our habits to suit the house…we change the house to suit our habits, so it’s constantly evolving. We live it, we don’t live in it. (54)

Cooper-Marcus notes that our desire to have control over our home spaces are more significant when we don’t have control over other aspects of our lives. Hell of true.

Also coming out so strongly through these interviews — almost makes me sorry for rich people — was the gendered differences in how people experience place and how they are limited or freed by it. Cooper-Marcus notes the studies that show the ways in which women are much more affected by the location of the home than men — particularly access to services, This is particularly visible in studies of suburbs where distance separates home from services and services from each other.

One study of over 200 couples in upper-middle-class sections of Stamford, Connecticut and NYC found ‘the most satisfied group was suburban men.’ These men spent significantly less time with their children and spouse. (199) That floored me, while at the same time, am I honestly surprised? Susan Saegert summarises another study that sheds additional light on this:

it appears that men prefer residential environments that reinforce the public-private distinction. This may be an inadvertent consequence of the bonuses of suburban life–retreat, outdoor activities, home ownership,relief from the pace of the city– or it many be partially motivated by the perhaps unconscious desire in many men to assure their home will be taken care of by a woman with few other options. (200)

I wonder how much this is shifting, and how this is working with other factors such as the return to city centres and resulting gentrification I wonder all of this in relation to suburban people, mostly white people, this is not a book that examines the kind of neighbourhoods I have long worked in, care most about, at all. But it certainly points towards a very interesting and rewarding way of looking at such neighbourhoods, building on work done by Mindy Fullilove and others.

The real importance of understanding and grappling with this is the way that this creates patterns over the course of our lives and down the generations — particularly in view of generations of segregation. Cooper-Marcus writes:

Research suggests that though few of us remain living in the same specific locale throughout our lives, many of us have a tendency to prefer living in the same type of setting…we each have a ‘settlement identity.’ (201)

This is an identity bound up in whether we prefer, and how we feel while we are in, the city, the suburbs etc… This tends to form in our childhood — whose setting often becomes our ideal, though if a childhood is unhappy people will often chose a contrasting setting. This isn’t a simple thing, but important to understand as taste in home and neighbourhood can be ‘significant indicators of group identity’, particularly socioeconomic identity.

Whether by choice or not, where you live and what you see around you are a reflection of who you are–or who society says you are. Making neighborhoods safe, secure, beautiful, and socially nurturing is not just some pie-in-the-sky aesthetic dream. It needs to be an essential component of urban policy, a high-priority expenditure of tax dollars. If the place where you grew up is as critical to your psychological development as I have tried to communicate in this book, imagine the damage to the next generation of youngsters who cannot freely play outside of their homes for fear of being shot? (213)

The crux of why this matters.

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Wilhelmine, Margravine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth

Friederike Sophie Wilhelmine (1709 – 1758) was the daughter of Frederick William I of Prussia and Sophia Dorothea of Hanover,  granddaughter of George I of Great Britain, and sister of Frederick the Great. Her memoirs, several versions of them, are available online, here are the ones I read… Sadly, I found much salacious (yet somehow mostly uninteresting) gossip but little in them about Bayreuth or some of the more interesting things she is known for — a literary and scientific salon that attracted Voltaire among others, and her work as a composer.

Her music is rather lovely.

This is really an account of another dreadful, brutal, and both physically and emotionally violent upbringing of a member of the aristocracy, though one rather higher in rank than Cosima Wagner. I found a picture of her and her brother as children — there is no mention of a Black servant but I wonder who he was, where he came from, why he was so included though I suppose it was a signal to wealth and status:

Antoine Pesne: Wilhelmine mit ihrem Bruder Friedrich, c 1715

The goal of it all to marry advantageously, and her mother as a Hanover had her heart set on the crown prince of England, also a Hanover of course, while her father preferred the Habsburg — this intersection between royal courts and empires and families caused no end of problems in a still-not-unified-Germany of competing principalities that I still haven’t quite got my head around apart from just how boring their constant wrangling is. Boring and destructive.

Wilhelmine writes this chilling description of a princess for sale:

We went to Charlottenburg on the 6th of October ; and on the 7th, in the evening, King George arrived there. The whole Court was assembled, and the King and Queen and all the princes received him as he alighted from his carriage. After they had welcomed him, I was presented to him. He embraced me, and said nothing further than ” She is very tall; how old is she? ” Then he gave his hand to the Queen, who led him to her room, all the princes following. No sooner had he reached her room, than he took a candle, which he held under my nose, and looked at me from top to toe. I can never describe the state of agitation I was in. I turned red and pale by turns ; and all the time he never uttered one word.

This is a tale of the petty intrigue and awfulness that swirled around the issue of her marriage. The machinations, lies, gossip, spying and stabbing in the back that goes one when a multitude’s lives and fortunes all depend on the whim of a king and his independently wealthy and powerful queen are of an extraordinary horribleness. It seems to me that the general tenor of the life and politics of the court ring true, whatever doubts have been described of trustworthiness around the details of, among other things, sex for information and power. Even that is remarkably uninteresting in such a context.

There are some good little nuggets though. I can think of a number of figures of whom this saying of Cardinal de Richelieu is true:

He has been guilty of too many bad actions to be well spoken of, and he has done too many good actions to be ill spoken of.

My fascinations with early trade and the East India Company were also piqued:

In the year 1717, the Emperor [Charles VI. of Austria, Emperor of Germany] had founded an East Indian Company in Ostend, a small town in Holland. This company began to trade with two ships, and in spite of all the difficulties which the Dutch tried to lay in their way, they reaped many advantages. The Emperor had given this company, to the exclusion of all his other subjects, the right and privilege for thirty years of extending their trade to Africa and India. As trade and commerce are the best means of increasing the prosperity of a State, the Emperor had made a secret treaty with Spain, in 1725, in which he bound himself to obtain Gibraltar and Port Mahon for the Spaniards.

But rather more interesting (on so many levels) was this little foible of her father’s:

My father’s greatest passion and amusement consisted first in hoarding up money, and then in perfecting his regiment at Potsdam, of which he was Colonel. This regiment was composed of nothing but giants, the smallest of the men being six feet. They were sought for all over the world, and the recruiting sergeants took them by force wherever they found them. Up to this time the King of England had constantly sent my father such recruits, but the Hanoverian Government, which had never been friendly to the House of Brandenburg, refused to obey their King’s orders any longer, hoping by this means to create a bad feeling between the two Courts. Some Prussian officers were bold enough to take several men by force from Hanoverian soil. This caused a great disturbance.

The international political implications of a desire for giants… and what a fucking disgrace that Frederick Wilhelm I of Prussia had power enough to simply go around taking them by force.

More music in case you are done with the overture to the opera Wilhelmine wrote for her husband’s birthday, a concerto this time…

I think my favourite passage from the memoirs is this description of a stay in a castle in the late 1720s, she was definitely no stranger to sarcasm:

In a fortnight’s time we went to “Wusterhausen”. A description of this celebrated place will not be amiss here. The King had, with the greatest labour, succeeded in raising a mound which so well shut out the view of the Castle, that you never caught sight of it till you were close upon it. The Castle consisted of the main building, the chief point of interest in which was a curious old tower, which had served as a refuge for the robbers that had built the castle, and to whom it had belonged. The Castle was surrounded by a moat and ramparts. The water in the moat was as black as the Styx, and certainly could not be compared to lavender water. A bridge built over the moat led to the Castle. There were two wings to the main building, each guarded by two black and two white eagles. The sentries consisted of ten or twelve large bears, who walked about on their hind legs, their front paws having been cut off. In the middle of the courtyard was a grass plot, on which a fountain had been made with great trouble. The fountain was surrounded by an iron railing, and steps led up to it. It was near this pleasant spot that the King had his “Tabagie.” My sisters and I, with our suites, were lodged in two rooms which resembled a hospital far more than rooms in a palace. We always dined in a tent, whatever the weather might be. Sometimes when it rained we sat up to our ankles in water. The dinner always numbered twenty-four persons, half of whom had to starve, for there were never more than six dishes served, and these were so meagre that one hungry being might easily have eaten them up alone. We had to spend ‘the whole day shut up in the Queen’s room, and were not allowed to get any fresh air, even when the weather was fine. It was a wonder we did not get bilious from sitting in-doors all day long, and hearing nothing but disagreeable speeches.

Holy Animal Liberation Front though, did they actually cut off the front paws of the bears? The translation is maybe not the best, but to have bears chained at all is terrible, I am glad they all dined in water up to their ankles. I shall probably never see castles in quite the same way again.

I also love this sentence describing the morning of her wedding day.

The next morning I went to the Queen in an elegant undress. She led me to the King to pronounce the customary renunciation to the allodial estates.

I have no idea what elegant undress looked like, but I assume it was probably still a great deal of dress.

A final quote, this time actually about Bayreuth, though about the Ermitage as it was in 1744, the closest I could get to her intellectual abilities:

Near the house are ten avenues of limes, whose branches are so thick that the sun’s rays never penetrate them. Every path in the wood leads to some hermit’s cave or other device, each differing from the other. I have a little hermitage of my own commanding a view of a ruined temple built in imitation of those at Rome. I have dedicated it to the Muses, and have placed in it the pictures of all the famous scientific men of the last century: Descartes, Leibnitz, Locke, Newton, Bayle, Voltaire, Maupertius, &c.

I didn’t get to the Ermitage, but saw much of her and her husband’s rebuilding of Bayreuth, particularly the new castle and the opera house, though I did not get to see the famous rococo interiors sadly  — their projects almost bankrupted their court. A final piece of hers performed in the opera house, currently closed for restoration. Seeing the extravagance of this might have made this trip a little more enjoyable, though in general I am not a rococo fan. Bayreuth was also home to Jean-Paul Richter, and there is a museum here for him as well (closed on the Sunday). I am sad that the Wagners have eclipsed both of them so.

Wilhelmine’s Bayreuth

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