Category Archives: Intersections

Burnett’s A Social History of Housing: Post WWI

Final post on Burnett’s A Social History of Housing, looking at everything that happened after WWI (read part 1, part 2, part 3). The  beginning of the great rise of council housing, the welfare state, the building spree, the great sell off and the period of building no more…we are still in that period of course, but now we call it crisis. The new tower blocks that are being built to sell direct to investors in the UK and oversees for either rent or landbanking hardly bear discussion as housing, but I am getting ahead of 1985, way ahead. Better to savour those days when the government saw housing as a human right and worked to provide it.

Still, I confess I have a much deeper delight in earlier periods, I am not sure why. But everyone seems to cram these last decades into the end of their histories…

Council Housing 1918-1939

So, the King was totally on board with social housing in 1919 — not that I care much about what the King things, but it just shows how the consensus was building around the right to a decent, secure home:

While the housing of the working classes has always been a question of the greatest social importance, never has it been so important as now. It is not too much to say that an adequate solution of the housing question is the foundation of all social progress … The first point at which the attack must be delivered is the unhealthy, ugly, overcrowded house in the mean street, which all of us know too well. If a healthy race is to be reared, it can be reared only in healthy homes; if drink and crime are to be successfully combated, decent, sanitary houses must be provided; if ‘unrest’ is to be converted into contentment, the provision of good houses may prove one of the most potent agents in that conversion. (Extract from the King’s Speech to Representatives of the Local Authorities and Societies at Buckingham Palace; The Times, 12 April 1919, p. 220)

So what was going on? The war for one, but above all it had highlighted the depths of poverty existing in the country, and this:

The crucial change was the reluctant recognition that private enterprise would not be able to supply houses of the quantity and quality now demanded at rents which many of the working classes could afford. (220)

This was also an official finding in 1917 of Advisory housing panel chaired by Lord Salisbury. Joesph Rowntree was on the panel, and submitted a memorandum on the topic, ‘which crystallized the new thinking…‘ (220). And thus the Tudor Walters Committee in 1918, formed to help create the standards of post-war local authority housing. Burnett describes it as ‘revolutionary, constituting  a major innovation in social policy and in the future character of working-class life.’

The committee drew on the garden city movement, model towns, and pre-war proposals from the Local Government Board. They recommended a maximum of 12 homes to the acre in towns, eight in the country, a maximum of 70 feet between opposing housing (all of this working to prevent for-profit developers cramming as many flats into a small area as possible. The committee was particularly opposed to the ‘monotony of long, parallel terraces having rear access by back streets and alleys‘. It gave plans for houses of a variety of types suited to need and locality, which had wider frontages with front rooms orientated to sun as well as  gardens (223). They also provided two types, ‘A’ (non-parlour) and ‘B’ (parlour). Which I find ‘funny’, just like the whole parlour controversy — what do working class people want with parlours, they don’t even use them? question. On the one hand I hate the idea of an unused dusty parlour, but yet if people desire them for a sense of home and the ability to have people visit according to their measure of what is required, they should damn well have them.

Gaining acceptance of all this, despite the King, was not so easy of course, but as Swenarton argued, this was the time of Bolshevism and threatened revolution. More on Swenarton later though, I loved his Homes for Heroes.

So the Tudor Walters Committee set a high standard, which became a baseline for others building housing:

Burnett page 227
Burnett p 235

From 1919 local authorities were providing housing, and building cottage estates on the outskirts of town where land was cheaper. This meant moving people out of cities and neighbourhoods — Becontree is the main example in East London (well documented in Young and Wilmott’s brilliant work on Bethnal Green) and Wythenshawe here where I am  but have not as yet visted: Manchester Corporations’ ‘vast satellite garden town‘. (236)

The next big moment in housing? The Wheatley Act (1924):  Rents were to be fixed in relation to the prevailing controlled rents of pre-war houses, so the contribution of the local authorities was fixed at a maximum of £4 10s 0d a house for forty years.

Burnett continues:

Typically, then, the council tenant of the 1920s and early 1930s was a man in a ‘sheltered’ manual job which had not been seriously endangered by the depression, who earned slightly more than the average wage and had a family of two young children. (238)

Although the Wheatley subsidies had been specifically designed to reach the mass of poorer workers, it rather failed in this. They continued to live in old, rent-restricted property, because of course rents were lower. This was not really believed to be an issue, as there was an idea of ‘filtering up’: better off workers would move out, poorer tenants could then move into the housing they were vacating, so that ultimately the slums would ‘wither‘ away.  but by the late 20s there was a realization that these policies were not having much impact on the problem. Of course, some still blamed poor people, but this was another push for stronger state intervention. (243)

This came with the Greenwood Act, the foundation of slum clearance, passed by the Labour Government in 1930. It didn’t properly start until 1933. This period also saw an increasing use of flats given lack of money to pay rents. Despite this, only 5% of subsidized buildings between wars were blocks of flats across the country, though with concentrations (not unexpected really) of 40% in London and 20% in Liverpool. As Burnett writes: ‘...in the thirties multi-storey living began to acquire a less grudging acceptance as a normal means of accommodation…‘ (247)

Burnett describes the ‘lavish’ inter-war flat development was to be found in Quarry Hill, Leeds — I’m not entirely sure that ‘lavish’ is the word I would use myself, but it is an extraordinary building.

Speculative Housing 1918-1939

Patterns of building were changing,  and homeownership growing.

The creation of a mass market for home-ownership depended on the expansion of building societies which, although well-known since the Act of 1836, had generally been small-scale, local, and little developed.

  • 1910: 1,723 societies advanced £9,292,000 on mortgages,
  • 1938: £137,000,000 advanced,
  • 1966: £1,244,750,000 (253)

Most of this housing was still being built by small firms. In 1930 84% of firms employed 10 or less workers, and only 1.5 percent a hundred or more. At the height of the building boom in 1935, 76,112 contractors were registered. (259)

This was also the period that brought in early experiments with the Modern Movement. ‘New Ways’ was built in 1925, the 1st cubist, rectilinear house built in Wellingborough Road, Northampton. I quite like it.

New Ways, Northampton (1926) by Peter Behrens. Designed by German architect Peter Behrens for toy manufacturer Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke

New ways northampshire. Basset-Lowke House interior

There wasn’t a big market for this, though. Most builders were looking backwards to the vernacular for inspiration (and surety they were what people liked), So there was little innovation while housing types for upper range always sought to be unique through an irregularity of outline, mystery in disposition of the rooms.

Public and Private Housing 1945-1985

So here is where we enter the final stretch, the familiar and maybe that’s why it feels a bit grey, especially when Thatcher comes along. Burnett notes the many very large changes in policy, but also large changes in the population. Small households of 1-2, increased from 21.5% in 1911 to 45.9% in 1966 to 55% in 1983. This came of younger people setting up household earlier, and of curse people living longer. He notes that between 1945 and 1975, English people as a whole were more prosperous than at any comparable period in the past — as Malpass notes, this is what underpinned social housing and the welfare state more broadly. Yet by the late 70s and of course the 80s ushered in mass unemployment once more. Burnett writes of where we are now (or were, though arguably this holds true) :

Housing has been a particular victim of inflation–a favourable circumstance for owners or those who have been in the process of buying…but unfortunate for those seeking housing for the first time. (282)

Immediately post-war also saw the building of the new towns, all beginning with the 1944 Abercrombie Plan, which suggested development of such satellite towns roughly building on ideas of the garden city. The New Towns Act 1946 was passed amidst great enthusiasm — 12 new towns designated in England and Wales in their first period between 1946 and 1960, between 1961-1970 ten more.

Mark 1s: Stevenage (1946), Crawley, Harlow, Hemel Hempstead, Newton Aycliffe (1947), Hatfield, Welwyn, Peterlee (1948), Bracknell, Basildon, Cwmbran (1949), Corby (1950)

Mark 2s: Skelmersdale (1961), telford (1963), Redditch, Runcorn, Washington (1964), Milton Keynes, Peterborough (1967), Northampton, Warrington (1964), Central Lancashire (1970).

Alongside new building, this also ushered in new urban renewal policies, which Burnett divides into 5 main phases after the war:

  1. slum clearance, which reached its height in the 1960s;
  2. a change to housing and environmental improvement early 1970s;
  3. gradual renewal combined with selective clearance in the mid-1970s;
  4. priority area experienents concerned with urban deprivation;
  5. 1980s, and attempts to formulate a more comprehensive approach incorporating economic renewal. (295)

The building programme was, of course, much greater post WWII than it had been post WWI, though Burnett describes it as economic policy driving the ‘deceleration and acceleration‘ (296). As in previous periods, the design was guided by key government documents. The Dudley Report was published in 1944, its recommendations embodied in the Housing Manual upgrading the Tudor-Walters report. For the first few years building often exceeded the recommendations.

This was updated by the Parker Morris Report, Homes for Today and Tomorrow, published in 1961. The Essex Design Guide for Residential Areas followed in 1973. Burnett writes it ‘perhaps represented the last ‘optimistic’ approach of local authorities towards public provision.’ (314)

Then the cuts begin.

As always:

It remained important in the fifties and sixties, as it had in the inter-war period, that the private house should be readily distinguishable from the council house, both externally and internally. It should reflect membership of a distinct group, the possession of distinct tastes and values and the ownership of a distinctive level of material possessions. As the size and design of private and public housing converged ever more closely, it became increasingly important to accentuate remaining differences. (320)

from 1975-1984

In brief:

The industry is still characterized, as it was in the last century, by many small firms, relatively low investment in plant and machinery and, hence, relatively low productivity: over the decade of the seventies the number of firms fluctuated between 75,000 and 100,000, standing at 91,520 in 1978 of which 31 per cent consisted solely of proprietors, employing no workers. (326-27)

Retrospect and Prospect

Viewed over the whole period this study, the housing experience of many people showed little major change until, in the years after World War II a period of rapid house-building, both public and private, coincided with full employment and a rising standard of living to produce and effective demand. (331)

It’s curious reading this from today’s vantage point, when the private rented sector is now larger than the socially rented, when people are desperate for ‘council’ housing that no longer exists. When racism continues to be a key factor in access to housing, but the patterns of it are shifting.

The contraction of privately-rented accommodation to only 9.1 per cent of all tenures has had especially unfortunate consequences for those on low incomes and those who cannot fulfill the residence qualifications for local authority housing: recent studies have shown clearly that ethnic minorities, and particularly coloured families, are over-represented in poor quality rented accommodation. (333)

Over all, what has been the country’s success?

If we turn…to the quality of houses themselves, it is clear that the most striking improvement achieved since the early nineteenth century was in the accommodation of the working classes. The pace of that improvement was quicker in the twentieth century than in the nineteenth, it varied importantly between town and country, and again between town and town. The development of a sanitary house, with adequate standards of construction, water supply and sewage, was the product of the Public Health Acts and, more especially, of the building by-laws from 1875 onwards, which brought about a major, and largely unrecognized, advance in working-class housing standards. (335)

Not a victory fully won however.

This book is too big, broad, sprawling to do justice so i’m just giving sweeps to remind myself of big pictures and zero in on what I liked most. Something that must be read for those interested in UK housing…

[Burnett, John (1986) A Social History of Housing: 1815-1985, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.]

Burnett’s A Social History of Housing: Housing the Middle Classes

Burnett’s A Social History of Housing looks at the breadth of housing across class — and the insights in how housing connects to ideologies of how life should be lived and how success should be measured are important rewards I think. The poor, the working classes don’t really have much to say about what their housing looks like, how it is structured, how it sits within a neighbourhood (as explored in post 1 and post 2 on this book — it’s a big book to be fair). It is arguable just how much the bourgeoisie have a say between the power of the building and advertising industries and the constraints of culture, but undeniable that they do have more power to live where and how they wish.

The 1800s saw the greater rise of the middle classes and their codes — not unified but tiered, yet they still held in common male superiority and absolute rule over family, women who did not work, sex for procreation, and the home as a sacred institution, pivot of both comfort and moral rectitude.

The rigid statement and enforcement of such a code was of particular importance to a class which, despite its evident energy and enterprise, was still new, insecure and largely unrecognized in political and social status. Many of its members were first-generation recruits, who needed clear guidance on rules of conduct and behaviour. A code would define status: it would serve as a unifying force to combat the enemies without and protect the members within, affording a private retreat behind which the strains and stresses of business life could be washed away, or at least concealed. The home, then, had to fulfil these many functions–to comfort and purify, to give relief and privacy from the cares of the world, to rear its members in an appropriate set of Christian values, and above, all, perhaps, to proclaim by its ordered arrangements, polite behaviour, cleanliness, tidiness and distinctive taste, that its members belonged to a class of substance, culture and respectability. The house itself was to be the visible expression of these values. (99)

This was explicitly developed through a series of early how-to books, which I may very soon become just a little obsessed with as they sound amazing.

Books set out exact budgets, the minimum at which one could live. Men began marrying later even as household budgeting became  of ‘prime importance’, with much spending as much about social position as comfort. For most middle class families, the guidebooks advised one tenth of the income to be spent on rent, not to exceed one eighth. (100)

I’d heard of Mrs Beetons, for example, one of the earliest. (I’m going to get my hands on that.) This focus on social position also drove the felt need not just for a home, but for a series of homes — the rather disgusting upward rise from more simple house exchanged for bigger and bigger ones, more servants, a carriage as husband’s salary rises with age. All of these things allowed people to place you precisely within the social hierarchy. What a waste of life.

Not least because all this was happening at a time of grievous morbidity — average life expectancy with poor and rich averaged together: 41 in England and Wales. Liverpool only 26 and Manchester 24. Cities were increasingly seen as unhealthy, poverty-stricken, and so they were, and this was part of the push to the suburbs. But this didn’t explain all of it.

Yet the movement of the wealthier classes outwards form the town centres was not only an escape from their evils; it was a conscious and positive migration towards a different physical environment and a different set of social values…a dream or an image of a different style of life. (104)

And that’s what’s interesting really — the content of that life, those values. Apart from having an ever bigger house and more servants. Burnett writes:

Some of the really great manufacturing families, like the Drinkwaters and the Phillips of Manchester, had, it is true, moved further out to country houses in park-like estates, where from Prestwick the head of the Philips family each day endured the inconvenience of a three-mile ride on horseback to Kersal Toll Bar where a four-wheel cab met him to convey him to his warehouse. In Liverpool, where life was more gracious and spacious than in the industrial cities, some of the merchant princes had ‘marine villas’ as well as town mansions. These were at Waterloo, just clear of the Mersey estuary… This was extreme social segregation (109)

I rather love that image of Phillips, and his ride on horseback to a four-wheel cab, also really hate extreme social segregation.

Architecturally this was also a time of changing styles. The old? The picturesque of the 1790s–associated with Humphrey Repton and John Nash, the villa and cottage, ‘a revulsion against an urban aesthetic, against order, uniformity and control.’ (115) This shifted to Greek Revival around 1800s, Robert Smirke and William Wilkins, best seen in large public buildings and consolidated by John Claudius Loudon’s architectural copy-books. He’s fascinating, his wife, Jane Webb, even more so (I extemporize here). He read her novel about a mummy (creatively titled The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century) and asked a mutual friend to bring her to lunch and the rest, so they say… but in truth she probably had something to do with those copy books as well.

Anyway. Back to Housing the Suburbans:

The total separation which the great country house afforded, encapsulated in its own geographical territory and strictly-controlled environment, was not economically possible for the middle classes, but the suburb gave a high degree of single-class exclusiveness behind frontiers which were clearly distinguishable on the ground even when not openly labelled as ‘private’. So strong was this desire for protection, based perhaps on fear that this tender flower of civilization would be contaminated, even destroyed, by contact with ‘the multitude’, that many suburbs fought hard, and often successfully, to prevent the building of tramways and the extension of cheap workmen’s fares on the existing railway routes to their territories. (192)

Burnett describes even more books to hunt down and find. There is Robert Kerr’s The Gentleman’s House (1864), which seems quite brilliant and gives key considerations to a house and plans as well, and which will be explored later, when I get round to reading the original. But the 12 key considerations for a home that he lists are: ‘privacy, comfort, convenience, spaciousness, compactness, light and air, salubrity, aspect and prospect, cheerfulness, elegance, importance, ornamentation‘. (194)

A telling list. It has lots of amazing budgets and plans, fine distinctions on neighbourhood. If you wanted to live withing ‘the dinner-party radius‘ it had to be Bayswater, Kensington and Bloombury. (201) That made me laugh out loud I confess. Some pictures:

I’ve always wanted a house with a parterre (but no, not really)

 

There is another book by a Mrs Panton — From kitchen to garret: hints for young householders — from 1888. I am going to read them all.

Burnett gives as an example of this growing suburban movement the ‘most famous Edwardian suburban estate’ — Hampstead Garden Suburb — by architects Parker & Unwin, but conceived by Henrietta Barnett in 1905. I want to know more about her too. But here is a plan of the ideal as it has developed here:

And some of the early drawings:

We have been wandering through here I believe, ourselves stopping at The Spaniards Tavern which was itself awesome but full of terrible people, just like Hampstead Park.

It’s amazing to think that is only around this time that the bungalow came to England — so much I didn’t know about this housing form with a long colonial history. The term comes partly from the bangla of Bengal, and first developed as an Anglo-Indian house-type, becoming the predominant colonial building form in the nineteenth century. In England it tended to be built at the seaside, the 1st one Birchington, near Westgate-on-Sea, Kent. Burnett writes:

These early bungalows were described as combining ‘real comfort’ with ‘pleasing rusticity’; they were ‘cosy’, ‘rural-looking’, ‘quaint’ and ‘perfect as to sanitary qualities’. At this time their use seems to have been confined to the upper classes and wealthy professional people. By the late eighties the bungalow began to move inland. (212)

I have this vision of houses slowly creeping away from the ocean. But in reality it was a developer, R.A. Briggs, who brought them inland (in 1887), earning himself the sobriquet of Bungalow Briggs.

As interesting final note. In most of these early books and discussions of design there is little discussion of the kitchen, and nothing about its comforts. This is because they were assumed to be the province of servants. I desired kitchens, but to find more of them I have to turn to:

America, where ‘the servant problem’ was experienced earlier, and more middle-class women actually worked in their kitchens, serious consideration was given to the organization of the work process as early as 1869 by Catherine E. Beecher. (216)

Not sure I like the term ‘servant problem’ given I come from a long line of servants, but I’m glad we were more quickly liberated in America.

[Burnett, John (1986) A Social History of Housing: 1815-1985, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.]

Eric Williams: Capitalism and Slavery

Eric Williams on Capitalism and Slavery is, of course, a classic, and yet another one I wish I had read some time ago. It’s key points — racism emerged out of the economic relationships of slavery, not slavery from racism. That economics remained primary to the motivations of UK statesmen as they first instituted then abolished slavery, as they supported Colonialism, turned against it, then returned to the carving up of Africa. I am more used to the complexities of culture and hegemony and social formations in thinking about race and capitalism, they are still at play here but not explored as much as they are elsewhere. That doens’t stop this from being bad ass.

A quick overview of the narrative, that cuts much out for which I apologise.

Origin of Negro Slavery

Eric Williams notes how the practice of white indentured servitude prepared the way for slavery — and no, it wasn’t the same. But it established  a profitable pattern that could be improved upon.

The servant expected land at the end of his contract: the Negro, in a strange environment, conspicuous by his color and features, and ignorant of the white man’s language and ways, could be kept  permanently divorced from the land. Racial differences made it easier to justify and rationalize Negro slavery, to exact the mechanical obedience of a plough-ox or a cart-horse, to demand that resignation and that complete moral and intellectual subjection which alone make slave labor possible. finally, and this was the decisive factor, the Negro slave was cheaper. The money which procured a white man’s service for ten years could buy a Negro for life. .. But the experience with white servitude had been invaluable…white servitude was the historic base upon which Negro slavery was constructed.

Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial… (19)

The crux of it all really, but there is so much more here of course. A little on the rationalisations of the times. Climate is a familiar one — it was just too hot and unhealthy for Europeans. But really, all that indentured white servitude had already proved that wrong. As the economy came to be all about sugar in the Carribean, tobacco and cotton on the mainland, plantations grew and labour needs changed.

I can still be shocked by how quickly these changes took place, how fast small farms (and the hopes and dreams of white men often fleeing desperate poverty, even if founding their dreams on conquest) were swallowed up by big ones: Barbados in 1645 — 11,200 small white farmers, 18,300 whites fit to bear arms and 5,680 Negro slaves; 1667 — 745 large plantation owners, 8,300 whites fit to bear arms, and 82,023 slaves (23). I can’t actually imagine that shift in 27 years. This happened on island after island. Nevis, white men decreased by 3/5 between 1672 and 1708, Montserrat over 2/3 between 1672 and 1727 (24). We see a steady process of the dispossession of the dispossessors in a way that works contrary to all myths of meritocracy and promise, even if you are able to take at face value a civilization based on enslavement, rape and genocide.

The end of slavery did not mean the end of the plantation. But Black people got the hell out of there, whites were too high status for that work, so new labour sources had to be found — East Indians. Trinidad imported 145,000 East Indians, British Guiana 238,000 between 1833 and 1917. It boggles the mind. These things boggle my mind even now.

The Development of the Negro Slave Trade

Of course, slavery was a long time developing. The 1st English slave-trading expedition was led by Sir John Hawkins, 1562. It continued, though in a small way, until the establishment of the Caribbean colonies and the introduction of sugar. Eric Williams, like Rodney Walters, ties the development of England tight to the slave trade and its destruction of Africa and the New World, one country profiting from the exploitation of many others. I am going to depart from Williams here to separate out the different cities, trace their individual connections. But without forgetting how they are woven into the whole of this history — see post two for that. This initial step was under the banner of mercantilism.

The slave trade [as compared to East India or China] was ideal in that it was carried on by means of British manufactured goods and was, as far as the British colonies were concerned, inseparably connected with the plantation trade which rendered Britain independent of foreigners for her supply of tropical products. (37)

Under such a profitable system, the courts very quickly inscribed the lives and bodies of slaves as property, Judge Mansfield ruling in 1783 that ‘the case of slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard‘ and awarding thirty pounds to the ship’s investors for each of the 132 slaves thrown overboard when the vessel grew short of water. No homicide charges were contemplated. (46)

British Commerce and the Triangular Trade

So Williams moves on to the rise of the triangle trade we learned about in school, returned to it all of the horror our textbooks stripped away along with a deeper understanding of its profitability: (1) Negroes purchased with British manufactures, (2) transported to plantations to produce tropical goods which created new industries in England, and (3) their maintenance and that of their owners provided another market for British industry, new England agriculture and Newfoundland fishing industries. This wealth did more:

The profits obtained provided one of the main streams of that accumulation of capital in England which financed the Industrial Revolution. (52)

This led to the growth of Bristol, Liverpool, and Glasgow first, that would go on to be invested in manufacture and machinery. Thus these cities of original wealth ‘occupied…the position in the age of trade that Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield occupied later in the age of industry‘ (60). I learned more about British manufacturing here than I ever knew before.

Until the tremendous development of the cotton industry in the Industrial Revolution, wool was the spoiled child of English manufactures. It figured largely in all considerations affecting the slave trade in the century after 1680. The cargo of a slave ship was incomplete without some woolen manufactures–serges, says, perpetuanos, arrangoes and bays. (65)

Which led to some absurdities still with us as a manner of custom:

That woolen goods should figure so prominently in tropical markets is to be attributed to the deliberate policy of mercantilist England. … Woolen undergarments are still common in the islands today, though more among the older generation, and suits of blue serge are still a sign of the well-dressed man. (67)

The West Indian Interest

And so for a while, before this rise of the industrial revolution, the West Indian planter was the great wealth and power, and they much preferred England.

The West Indian planter was a familiar figure in English society in the eighteenth century. The explanation lies in the absentee landlordism which has always been the curse of the Caribbean and s still one of its major problems today. (85)

The curse of the absentee landlord seems ubiquitous. There is also this:

The wealth of the West Indians became proverbial. (91)

They held a monopoly of all seats but one in Bristol for a long time, and represented various other areas in parliament, which I can also still find bewildering. For example, John Gladstone represented Woodstock then Lancaster:

it was his pleasure to listen in May, 1833, to the maiden speech of his son, MP for Newark, in defense of slavery on the family states in Guiana. (93)

These families of slave-generated wealth also entrenched themselves in the House of Lords, and married into high families — ‘There are few, if any, noble houses in England…without a West Indian strain.’ (94)

British Industry and the Triangular Trade

Williams goes on to look at where this power was directed and wealth invested:

Banking: helped provide the large sums needed for cotton factories and building of canals connecting Manchester and Liverpool

Heavy Industry: West Indian trade capital financed James Watt and the steam engine. Antony Bacon early war profiteer — engaged in trade in both victualing troops and ‘supplying seasoned and able Negroes for government contracts in the West Indies‘. Set up iron works in Merthyr Tydfil, rapidly expanded to fulfill government contracts during the American war, set up another furnace at Cyfartha. (103) Just a few examples.

Insurance: Obvious this one.

The American Revolution

This played a big role in the politics of the new world, and not in the way that Americans are taught to understand our early history.  New England in particular had problematic relationship with England as it grew to become a competitor with British goods rather than a consumer — which in some ways was what the revolution  was actually all about. But initially it was well integrated into the triangle trade as another exporter to the West Indies (with British policy ensuring the West Indies did not produce for themselves, of course).

I just hadn’t realised how closely connected the islands were with the mainland. Alexander Hamilton was born on Nevis. Many owned plantations both in the islands and in the South.  American succession had a huge impact on them, and one thing I do wonder is why they weren’t incorporated in the new US… I suppose perhaps because they were already in decline. Instead, they were just left.

Fifteen thousand slaves died of famine in Jamaica alone between 1780 and 1787, and American independence was the first stage in the decline of the sugar colonies.  (121)

Jesus.

‘The Caribbean ceased to be a British lake… The center of gravity in the British Empire shifted from the Caribbean Sea to the Indian Ocean, from the West Indies to India. In 1783… prime Minister Pitt began to take an abnormally great interest in the British dominions to the East. In 1787 Wilberforce was encouraged by Pitt to sponsor the proposal for abolition of the slave trade. In the same year the East India Company turned its attention to the cultivation of sugar… (123)

Jesus. Profit falls and people starve.

The Development of British Capitalism 1783-1833

This becomes the period of the huge growth of cotton manufacturing (see Manchester), wool suddenly becomes an import, primarily from Australia whose whole economy shifts. Profit interests shift from West Indies to South America and India as UK becomes exporter of manufactured goods worldwide — thus exploding the need for earlier Mercantilism wisdom of monopoly. Manchester and others wished to trade with everyone, no barriers — and so, the rise of free trade movement. Well, it was coming soon.

Mercantilism had run its course. It was necessary only to give political expression to the new economic situation. (133)

It would be good for the West Indies.

The New Industrial Order

That’s because the West Indians stood for monopoly and mercantilism, and both were going down.

The attack on the West Indians was more than an attack on slavery. It was an attack on monopoly. Their opponents were not only the humanitarians but the capitalists. The reason for the attack was not only that the West Indian economic system was vicious but that it was also so unprofitable that for this reason alone its destruction was inevitable. (135)

The attack falls into three phases: the attack on the slave trade, the attack on slavery, the attack on the preferential sugar duties. The slave trade was abolished in 1807, slavery in 1833, the sugar preference in 1846. The three events are inseparable. The very vested interests which had been built up by the slave system now turned and destroyed that system. (136)

It’s an extraordinary about face.

The growth of Anti-Imperialism

There’s this strange period that I never knew about, after the loss of the original colonies, when the West Indies no longer of any importance to anyone but its plantation owners, when prevailing attitudes were against Empire. It didn’t last that long, obviously. But it did exist for a while, while greater profits were to be found in free trade.

The colonial system was the spinal cord of the commercial capitalism of the mercantile epoch. In the era of free trade the industrial capitalists wanted no colonies at all, least of all the West Indies.

The trend dated back, as we have seen, to the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Its development paralleled the development of the free trade movement. The whole world now became a British colony and the West Indies were doomed. The leader of the movement was Cobden. Cobden referred approvingly to Adam Smith’s chapters in his “immortal work” on the expense of colonies. (142)

And part of the global politicking? Destroying the immensely valuable French colony of Saint Domingue.

Pitt’s plan was twofold: to recapture the European market with the aid of sugar from India, and to secure an international abolition of the slave trade, which would ruin St Domingue. (146)

He failed in both — West Indians managed to keep import duties high, and he couldn’t get the Dutch, Spanish and French to abolish slavery. After the French Revolution, England attempted to take the colony by force — as Williams notes, Pitt couldn’t then have had a successful sugar colony and the abolition of slavery.

But instead, they didn’t capture the colony, just helped destroy it. Abolition wasn’t so important, and Pitt stepped back from it. The slave trade doubled in fact, and Britain conquered Trinidad and British Guiana. It became clear that sugar was most profitable in new territories, with its slash and burn agriculture dependent on fresh soil. Old colonies were saturated, even with destruction of St Domingue the West Indies were still not profitable, instead Cuba and other islands succeeded in producing cheaper sugar.

Wilberforce rejoiced: West Indian distress could not be imputed to abolition. Actually, abolition was the direct result of that distress. (150)

West Indies unable to compete,with Brazil and Cuba. Williams writes:

Overproduction in 1807 demanded abolition; overproduction in 1833 demanded emancipation. (152)

British Capitalism and the West Indies

And so a remarkable change:

Whereas before, in the eighteenth century, every important vested interest in England was lined up on the side of monopoly and the colonial system; after 1783, one by one, every one of those interests came out against monopoly and the West Indian slave system. (154)

“The Commercial Part of the Nation” and slavery

News flash. Capitalists only occasional abolitionists.

The “Saints” and Slavery

So we can’t completely forget the actual abolitionists, Williams admitted it was ‘one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time‘ (178).  Of course it wasn’t sentimentality but economics that were the main driving force, but it’s nice to believe it was ‘justice, humanity and sound policy‘ as the bill said it was.

There is an indictment of Wilberforce in here, not that he’s hard to go after…I loved it though, having read quite a bit about the awfulness of the Clapham Sect.

There is a certain smugness about the man, his life, his religion. As a leader, he was inept, addicted to moderation, compromise and delay. He deprecated extreme measures and feared popular agitation. He relied for success upon aristocratic patronage, parliamentary diplomacy and private influence with men in office. He was a lobbyist, and it was a common saying that his vote could safely be predicted, for it was certain to be opposed to his speech. (181)

Their campaign was only directed at abolishing slavery in the West Indies, and only of Blacks. The Clapham Sect had various interest in East India and they didn’t want those troubled.

The Slaves and Slavery

Can’t leave out the agency of slaves themselves, of struggle, of uprising. And of course Eric Williams doesn’t. This is because:

Contrary to popular and even learned belief, however, as the political crisis deepened in Britain, the most dynamic and powerful social force in the colonies was the slave himself. This aspect of the West Indian problem has been studiously ignored. (201)

This despite the power and inspiration of the Maroons of Jamaica, Bush Negroes of British Guiana, the revolt of St Domingue. And endless revolt. In 1808: a slave revolt in British Guiana. 1816, Barbados. 1823, British Guiana again — fifty plantations, 12,000 people. Continued unrest. 1831, Antigua then Jamaica over Christmas that spread. 1833, emancipation.

Conclusion

So a few ideas and principles in the form Eric Williams gives them:

  1. The decisive forces in the period of history we have discussed are the developing economic forces

  2. The various contending groups of dominant merchants, industrialists and politicians, while keenly aware of immediate interest, are for that very reason generally blind to the long-range consequences of their various actions, proposals, policies.  (210)

  3. The political and moral ideas of the age are to examined in the very closest relation to the economic development.

  4. An outworn interest, whose bankruptcy smells to heaven in historical perspective, can exercise an obstructionist and disruptive effect which can only be explained by the powerful services it had previously rendered and the entrenchment previously gained.

  5. The ideas built on those interests continue long after the interests have been destroyed and work their old mischief, which is all the more mischievous because the interests to which they correspond no longer exist. (211)

Next post, a bit more on how city by city the UK was linked and remains linked to slavery in the New World. All of these the kind of insights that stay with you.

[Williams, Eric (1989 [1944]) Capitalism and Slavery. London: Andre Deutsch.]

The Souls of Black Folk: W. E. B. Du Bois

Re-reading another classic — The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. I remember being a little torn by it just as I was torn reading it again — loving so much the autobiographical sections, loving the stories of his students in the mountains of the deep South and imagining this northern intellectual living there among them. Loving the explorations of music. I remember being so struck with this other sense of divided worlds, of Black and white… of feeling both how far we’ve come, and how much has stayed the same. At the same time, I remember the way some of the old fashioned language and sentimentality left me cold. Yet this a book meant to speak to a broad population, to touch heartstrings and to move. It is hardly Du Bois’s fault that such words might have less power today — and I am no judge of its impact on others.  All that said, there are few things more powerful than this I think:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of framing it. All, nervous, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? (7)

And grown up through this system of racialisation and horror created in the US, the veil…

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (8)

The way that living in two worlds requires two consciousnesses, what is possible in one impossible in the other.

This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten thousand thousand people,—has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed about to make them ashamed of themselves. (10)

So much impossible in the white world.

In answer to this, it has been claimed that the Negro can survive only through submission. Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people give up, at least for the present, three things,— First, political power, Second, insistence on civil rights, Third, higher education of Negro youth,—and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South. This policy has been courageously and insistently advocated for over fifteen years, and has been triumphant for perhaps ten years. As a result of this tender of the palm-branch, what has been the return? In these years there have occurred:

The disfranchisement of the Negro.
The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro.
The steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of the Negro.

These movements are not, to be sure, direct results of Mr. Washington’s teachings; but his propaganda has, without a shadow of doubt, helped their speedier accomplishment. The question then comes: Is it possible, and probable, that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only the most meager chance for developing their exceptional men? If history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic No. (42-43)

For Booker T. Washington to come after Frederick Douglass… damn. And what better refutation.

If the Negro was to learn, he must teach himself, and the most effective help that could be given him was the establishment of schools to train Negro teachers. This conclusion was slowly but surely reached by every student of the situation until simultaneously, in widely separated regions, without consultation or systematic plan, there arose a series of institutions designed to furnish teachers for the untaught. Above the sneers of critics at the obvious defects of this procedure must ever stand its one crushing rejoinder: in a single generation they put thirty thousand black teachers in the South; they wiped out the illiteracy of the majority of the black people of the land, and they made Tuskegee possible. (74)

He goes on to strip the lies of a ‘benevolent’ white society:

The wrong which your gentlemen have done against helpless black women in defiance of your own laws is written on the foreheads of two millions of mulattoes, and written in ineffaceable blood. And finally, when you fasten crime upon this race as its peculiar trait, they answer that slavery was the arch-crime, and lynching and lawlessness its twin abortion; that color and race are not crimes, and yet they it is which in this land receives most unceasing condemnation, North, East, South, and West. (80)

The truth of the plantation:

And yet with all this there was something sordid, something forced,—a certain feverish unrest and recklessness; for was not all this show and tinsel built upon a groan? “This land was a little Hell,” said a ragged, brown, and grave-faced man to me. We were seated near a roadside blacksmith-shop, and behind was the bare ruin of some master’s home. “I’ve seen niggers drop dead in the furrow, but they were kicked aside, and the plough never stopped. And down in the guardhouse, there’s where the blood ran.”

With such foundations a kingdom must in time sway and fall. (92)

And over and over again, a plea to go out, to see and listen and study and in that way to learn what is. It is central to his praxis — and he and his students embodied that work long before others did.

We seldom study the condition of the Negro to-day honestly and carefully. It is so much easier to assume that we know it all. Or perhaps, having already reached conclusions in our own minds, we are loth to have them disturbed by facts. And yet how little we really know of these millions,—of their daily lives and longings, of their homely joys and sorrows, of their real shortcomings and the meaning of their crimes! All this we can only learn by intimate contact with the masses, and not by wholesale arguments covering millions separate in time and space, and differing widely in training and culture. (101)

To the car-window sociologist, to the man who seeks to understand and know the South by devoting the few leisure hours of a holiday trip to unravelling the snarl of centuries,—to such men very often the whole trouble with the black field-hand may be summed up by Aunt Ophelia’s word, “Shiftless!” (113)

There are still a number of academics engaged in such pursuits, still an inability to listen. Still a denial that any kind of veil exists, much less that it makes it difficult for those with race (class, gender) privilege to see, or understand what lies on the other side of it. Not the way those who stand there must, within oppression but needing that knowledge of privilege’s workings for survival.

Frederick Douglass: My Bondage and My Freedom

I read the short version of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography many years ago and it impressed me so deeply, I had always meant to read the longer version — one of them at least. Too many years separate them for me even to be sure of the differences, apart from the recounting of the scene where Douglass stands up to Covey — much expanded here, but I am not sure more powerful for that. Still. The moment where enough is enough, where resistance is embraced fully, where everything changes. An incredible moment. But this is a book of powerful moments. So much of what is theorised over the next 150 years is here already, though always in a way that pathologises slavery not those bound and tortured by it. If only we had kept to that tradition.

Geneological trees do not flourish among slaves. A person of some consequence here in the north, sometimes designated father, is literally abolished in slave law and slave practice. It is only once in a while that an exception is found to this statement. (34-35)

Of course, Douglass’s father was white. Master or overseer, he is not explicit — does not know, does not wish to know, does not wish to say.

The practice of separating children from their mothers, and hiring the latter out at distances too great to admit of their meeting, except at long intervals, is a marked feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system. But it is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with a brute. It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and the heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution. (37-38)

Frederick Douglass belonged to the Lloyds, a plantation along the Wye river named after the river in Wales whence they came. Knowing the Wye river — it brings these connections home. From rural wales to owning slaves in Maryland.

Frederick Douglass grows up. Always cold. Always hungry. Always questioning.

The old doctrine that submission is the best cure for outrage and wrong, does not hold good on the slave plantation. He is whipped oftenest, who is whipped easiest; and that slave who has the courage to stand up for himself against the overseer, although he may have many hard stripes at the first, becomes, in the end, a freeman, even though he sustain the formal relation of a slave. (95)

There is, of course, a line to be walked here because too much and they will just shoot you — this is clear in the text despite the numerous forceful statements like the one above.

I’ve just finished re-reading Du Bois on The Souls of Black Folk, and found it powerful that Douglass too spends time on the songs sung by slaves and their meaning and importance. It was often demanded of them that they sing, you cannot plot while singing, you cannot run away. But song transformed into something else. Douglass relates that it is not until after escaping slavery and looking back that the real meaning of the songs struck him.

They told a tale which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of these wild notes always depressed my spirits and filled my heart with ineffable sadness… Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery… (99)

But then, still a child, he is sent to Baltimore, and it is strange to think, that without this arbitrary decision the future course of his life might not have been possible. For here he has opportunity to learn to read, to play with poor white children, to ask questions, to obtain knowledge, to see a world beyond the plantation. And, in the beginning, to have a taste of something different.

At first, Mrs Auld evidently regarded me simply as a child, like any other child; she had not come to regard me as property. This latter thought was a thing of conventional growth…it took several years to change the natural sweetness of her temper into fretful bitterness. (144-145)

Douglass illustrates time and time again how the structures of slavery constrain the humanity of both slave and slave-owner. The nature of slavery is such that there can be no good owner, no kind mistress because to own a slave is to deny the humanity of another human being. Mrs Auld begins kindly — begins to teach him to read, and is stopped in her tracks by her husband. It becomes fully brought home to her that reading and slavery are incompatible. In bowing to this, she loses her own self as she must.

As Douglass comes to understand this, the bewildering changes from kindness to bitterness, the reminders of his place in the household, he is also working out the nature of his own morality under slavery. That within a structure that has robbed him of both liberty and all reward of his labour, his right to steal for self preservation cannot be questioned. With no freedom of choice, no slave can be held morally responsible or accountable, rather all responsibility lies with those who created an enforce slavery.

There are insights too, into slavery’s impact on the class distinctions made in the South:

Slaves, too, readily distinguish between the birthright bearing of the original slaveholder and the assumed attitudes of the accidental slaveholder; and while they cannot respect either, they certainly despise the latter more than the former. (192)

Refusing to call him Master only one of many subtle ways of showing this. But it is so clear that status is entirely bound up in ownership of other human beings at this time, even though a certain level of privilege is granted to all those with white skin. Douglass is thinking all of these things, but can do little. At the age of 16 he is sent to work for a man named Covey for year, to be broken. And after 6 months of being broken, he stands up, refuses to be whipped, fights back.

…this battle with Mr Covey–undignified as it was, and as I fear my narration of it is–was the turning point in my “life as a slave.” It rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore dreams, and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before; I was A MAN NOW. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be A FREEMAN. (246)

He was never whipped again. He does wonder why he wasn’t just killed — the punishment decreed by law for such defiance. The loss of face that Covey would have incurred is most likely the reason, but he himself has seen someone murdered for less. He describes the price of being a man — being willing to die. He also notes the many other things that work to keep human beings enslaved. Ties to family and friends, to place and familiarity. The granting of holidays, and other things that keep ‘minds occupied with thoughts and aspirations short of the liberty of which they are deprived. A certain degree of attainable good must be kept before them’ (253).

One of teh most powerful sentences I think:

The thought of only being a creature of the present and the past, troubled me, and I longed to have a future–a future with hope in it. (273)

I think this is perhaps the terror of poverty as well, though it cannot be compared to slavery. But it appears again in one of the speeches at the end. A future could only lie in freedom. He plans an attempt at escape with a group of dear friends and is betrayed, but without quite the proof needed to convince his owner that the freedom break was actually going to be attempted. So while threatened with sale to the South, he is not in the end taken there. He is sent back to Baltimore, and apprenticed in the shipyards.

He has the shit beaten out of him by white apprentices there,  partially at the instigation of the white carpenters who stand and watch it all. He notes that one of the elements in slavery is this:

the conflict of slavery with the interests of the white mechanics and laborers of the south. … The slaveholders, with a craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the blacks, succeeds in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the black man himself… The slave is robbed, by his master, of all his earnings, above what is required for his bare physical necessities; and the white man is robbed by the slave system, of the just results of his labor, because he is flung into competition with a class of laborers who work without wages. (309-310)

Douglass writes this will set the white laborers in the vanguard against slavery — it’s curious that he is right and wrong, for in much of the north and in California they surely are against slavery, but equally against Black labour. Still, we see here the intersections of race, economic systems, labour, struggle…

He escapes. Wanders lost in NY afraid for his life and recapture, no money, no friends. He doesn’t wonder that some return South. But he reaches safety with the abolitionists and they recommend he move to New Bedford. Which sounds bad ass. He tells a story in which a newcomer threatens one of the community with informing on him to his old master. A meeting is called of the whole Black community, and at the end of it

…at the close of his prayer, the old man (one of the numerous family of Johnsons) rose from his knees, deliberately surveyed his audience, and then said, in a tone of solemn resolution, “Well, friends, we have got him here, and I would now recommend that you young men should just take him outside the door and kill him. (348)

He escapes, sadly. But Douglass writes

A slave could not be taken from that town seventeen years ago, any more than he could be so taken away now. the reason is, that the colored people in that city are educated up to the point of fighting for their freedom, as well as speaking for it. (348)

That brings a tear.

So Douglass comes to the attention of the abolitionists as a speaker, begins to travel and lecture. He reads more, speaks more, thinks. He is fucking brilliant, far more so than those around him and they don’t like it, tell him to speak more like a slave, to just give his story and let them denounce the wrongs and provide the solutions. Whites in the audiences start murmuring at his eloquence, refuse to believe that he is a slave as he doesn’t speak like one or act like one. Makes you want to throw things.

And so Douglass writes the first version of his autobiography to free himself from these insinuations…which is, of course, a huge risk and means his almost certain recapture. And so he goes to England. where like many others before and after, he is treated as an equal (though all this would change for other generations of Black people coming to England). Money is raised to buy his freedom so he can return to the US without the threat of recapture hanging over him. (He is criticised for allowing this, by those who don’t know what it is like to be owned or to have the fear of being taken back hanging over them.) More money is raised to provide him with a printing press, so he can begin his own paper. And the white abolitionists really fucking hate that, as you can imagine — they argue it’s not needed, that it will interfere with the lecturing they have planned for him, that he is a better speaker than writer, and that it can’t succeed. William Lloyd Garrison has his own paper after all. So Douglass moves to Rochdale to avoid competition with them. They hate it even more when, upon deep thought, Douglass decides that they are wrong in their analysis of the issue and in their tactics of refusals to vote and demands that the slave-states be cut free from the union.

He notes near the end, the many instances of racism in the north. The prejudice that existed even among abolitionists and the awkwardness of their denials underlining how deeply it ran. Like their insistence they were ‘not afraid to walk with him’. He resists the existence of ‘Jim Crow’ cars in trains and trams, refusing to move and fighting any attempts to so remove him. Jim Crow this early, in name and in segregated carriages. I had forgotten. He is such a well-connected figure by this time, his battles are successful.

At the end are a collection of speeches and damn. They are incredible, what a thing to have heard him speak. Above all the speech for the 4th of July, which I have read before. But some excerpts, first from his reception speech at Finsbury Chapel.

I am here to say that I think the term slavery is sometimes abused by identifying it with that which it is not. Slavery in the United States is the granting of that power by which one man exercises and enforces a right of poetry in the body and soul of another. The condition of a slave is simply that of the brute beast. He is a piece of property–a marketable commodity…to be bought or sold at will and caprice of the master who claims him to be his property; he is spoken of, thought of, and treated as property. His own good, his conscience, his intellect, his affections, are all set aside by the master. The will and the wishes of the master are the law of the slave. He is as much a piece of property as a horse. If he is fed, he is fed because he is property. If he is clothed, it is with a view to the increase of his value as property. Whatever of comfort is necessary to him for his body or soul that is inconsistent with his being property, is carefully wrested from him, not only by public opinion, but by the law of the country. He is carefully deprived of everything that tends in the slightest degree to detract from his value as property. He is deprived of education. God has given him an intellect; the slaveholder declares it shall not be cultivated. If his moral perception leads him in a course contrary to his value as property, the slaveholder declares he shall not exercise it. The marriage institution cannot exist among slaves, and one-sixth of the population of democratic America is denied its privileges by the law of the land. What is to be thought of a nation boasting of its liberty, boasting of its humanity, boasting of its Christianity, boasting of its love of justice and purity, and yet having within its own borders three millions of persons denied by law the right of marriage? (408)

And then this rousing finale

The slaveholders want total darkness on the subject. They want the hatchway shut down, that the monster may crawl in his den of darkness, crushing human hopes and happiness, destroying the bondman at will, and having no one to reprove or rebuke him. Slavery shrinks from the light; it hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest its deeds should be reproved. To tear off the mask from this abominable system, to expose it to the light of heaven, aye, to the heat of the sun, that it may burn and wither it out of existence, is my object in coming to this country. I want the slaveholder surrounded, as by a wall of anti-slavery fire, so that he may see the condemnation of himself and his system glaring down in letters of light. (418)

There is the letter to his old master, written on the anniversary of his escape. It is excoriating, and also moving…

The fact is, there are few here who would not return to the South in the event of emancipation. We want to live in the land of our birth, and to lay our bones by the side of our fathers’; and nothing short of an intense love of personal freedom keeps us from the South. For the sake of this, most of us would live on a crust of bread and a cup of cold water.(424)

At this moment, you are probably the guilty holder of at least three of my own dear sisters, and my only brother in bondage. These you regard as your property. They are recorded on your ledger, or perhaps have been sold to human flesh mongers, with a view to filling your own ever-hungry purse. Sir, I desire to know how and where these dear sisters are. Have you sold them? or are they still in your possession? What has become of them? are they living or dead? And my dear old grandmother, whom you turned out like an old horse, to die in the woods—is she still alive? Write and let me know all about them. (426-427)

Speech on The Nature of Slavery:

First of all, I will state, as well as I can, the legal and social relation of master and slave. A master is one—to speak in the vocabulary of the southern states—who claims and exercises a right of property in the person of a fellow-man. This he does with the force of the law and the sanction of southern religion. The law gives the master absolute power over the slave. He may work him, flog him, hire him out, sell him, and, in certain contingencies, kill him, with perfect impunity. The slave is a human being, divested of all rights—reduced to the level of a brute—a mere “chattel” in the eye of the law—placed beyond the circle of human brotherhood—cut off from his kind—his name, which the “recording angel” may have enrolled in heaven, among the blest, is impiously inserted in a master’s ledger, with horses, sheep, and swine. In law, the slave has no wife, no children, no country, and no home. He can own nothing, possess nothing, acquire nothing, but what must belong to another. To eat the fruit of his own toil, to clothe his person with the work of his own hands, is considered stealing. He toils that another may reap the fruit; he is industrious that another may live in idleness; he eats unbolted meal that another may eat the bread of fine flour; he labors in chains at home, under a burning sun and biting lash, that another may ride in ease and splendor abroad; he lives in ignorance that another may be educated; he is abused that another may be exalted; he rests his toil-worn limbs on the cold, damp ground that another may repose on the softest pillow; he is clad in coarse and tattered raiment that another may be arrayed in purple and fine linen; he is sheltered only by the wretched hovel that a master may dwell in a magnificent mansion; and to this condition he is bound down as by an arm of iron.

From this monstrous relation there springs an unceasing stream of most revolting cruelties. The very accompaniments of the slave system stamp it as the offspring of hell itself. To ensure good behavior, the slaveholder relies on the whip; to induce proper humility, he relies on the whip; to rebuke what he is pleased to term insolence, he relies on the whip; to supply the place of wages as an incentive to toil, he relies on the whip; to bind down the spirit of the slave, to imbrute and destroy his manhood, he relies on the whip, the chain, the gag, the thumb-screw, the pillory, the bowie knife the pistol, and the blood-hound. These are the necessary and unvarying accompaniments of the system. Wherever slavery is found, these horrid instruments are also found. (429-430)

It is only when we contemplate the slave as a moral and intellectual being, that we can adequately comprehend the unparalleled enormity of slavery, and the intense criminality of the slaveholder. I have said that the slave was a man. … The first work of slavery is to mar and deface those characteristics of its victims which distinguish men from things, and persons from property. Its first aim is to destroy all sense of high moral and religious responsibility. It reduces man to a mere machine. It cuts him off from his Maker, it hides from him the laws of God, and leaves him to grope his way from time to eternity in the dark, under the arbitrary and despotic control of a frail, depraved, and sinful fellow-man. (431)

What to the slave is the 4th of July? (listen to James Earl Jones read it here)

Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? (441)

Those words are still pretty true.

America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the Constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America! (442)

What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? (444)

Words cannot express my admiration or respect. Yet I am still full of questions, about the wife who came from Maryland also, about her life, about the day to day…more to read, always more to read.

Frederick Douglass, Syracuse, New York, July–August 1843; whole-plate daguerreotype by an unknown photographer, from Picturing Frederick Douglass

Douglass, Frederick (1969 [1855]) My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Ella Baker, Puerto Rico solidarity rally, 1974

A nice gathering like today is not enough. You have to go back, and reach out to your neighbors who don’t speak to you, and you have to reach out to your friends, who think they are making it good, and get them to understand that they as well as you and I cannot be free in America — or anywhere else where there is capitalism and imperialism — until we can get people to recognize that they themselves have to make the struggle and have to make the fight for freedom every day in the year, every year, until they win it. Thank you.

Still true, still in struggle, still needing to stand in solidarity with Puerto Rico…

The Cry Was Unity: African Americans and the Communist Party

Mark Solomon’s The Cry Was Unity: African Americans and the Communist Party is a deep and detailed look at this relationship in the US over a very short period of time, but a rather vital one I think. This time when the CP did some pretty amazing organizing, and some pretty flawed organizing, before their top-down structure dictated they drop it entirely.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how theory works with practice, about ideology and pragmatism, about the need to confront racism and white supremacy and how we might better go about that and I keep thinking about this book, so I dusted off the notes. I read a good while ago, I confess. Never got around to processing it really. This doesn’t succeed or do it justice, just pulls out some key quotes because it’s dense, something to return to with questions about specific people, specific dates.

So to start with Otto Huiswood. Originally from Surinam (Surinam!), he helped found the CP in Harlem in 1919 — making him the 1st African American to join. Cyril Briggs from the island of Nevis was another key figure…I had so little knowledge before reading this of just how important the Caribbean diaspora was in NY, and to radical politics. But Briggs did so much before the CP… he was inspired by the Irish Easter rising

which had fired the imagination of the “New Negro” radicals…exemplified an revolutionary nationalism that found its way into the rhetoric voiced on street corners and in the emerging press of rapidly urbanizing African American life. (5)

It makes me happy to see the connections between his radical philosophies and the Irish struggle (we all know Irish and Black folks didn’t often get along in NY, I just finished Ignatiev on the whole Irish becoming White thing, and damn is it ugly…) But anyway, a bit of happy news — and Connelly stood against slavery, for a while anyway.  But the Easter Rising, and other independence movements, inspired Briggs to advocate for a separate black state within the US. He founded the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) for African Liberation and Redemption, the announcement of its founding continued ‘Those only need apply who are willing to go the limit.’ (9) They were modeled on the Sinn Fein, founded the newspaper The Crusader in 1918.

1919 — Red Summer, a wave of lynchings swept the country. Briggs Was moving in the same circles as Huiswood, Claude McKay, Grace Campbell, W.A. Domingo, Hubert Harrison and other radicals in Harlem. Terrible times, amazing times, no? This was also the time of Marcus Garvey — and he and Briggs never got along.  Solomon writes

Marcus Garvey’s UNIA resonated for African American working people as Briggs’ ABB could not, because the former vibrantly express outrage at the dominant white society without directly and dangerously confronting the bourgeois order. (28)

And that is something Briggs did. He would join the CP in 1921, after the 2nd Internation congress in 1920. That’s the one where Lenin presented his ‘Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions’, a radical document that would begin to transform the work of the CP in the US as it urged the party to support revolutionary movements, and named both Ireland and African Americans. I lose track a little of the twists and turns and the politics of these congresses, but Claude McKay and Otto Huiswood were both present at the 4th congress in 1922, where the Congress established a Negro Commission.

The American Negro Labor Congress of 1925 opened in Chicago, race was always an issue as seen by the mostly white delegates, though they were addressed by Richard B Moore and Claude McKay. Solomon writes:

The sense of a “nation within a nation,” born in slavery and nurtured in segregation, is rooted in African American thought. It emerged from the lash, from political subjugation, from the trampling of the cultural heritage of an entire people, from assaults on their psychological makeup and identity. The Negro question was indeed more than a class or racial problem. the forced rupture of community between blacks and whites, and the onslaught on the blacks’ historical continuity, culture, and identity had produced a longing for political unity and psychic autonomy–for the realization of black national yearning. the Communists were onto something. National oppression constituted a proper description of what had happened to black Americans. (88)

There is this amazing insistence for a time that racial divisions and white supremacy be overcome:

southern whites [and non-southern whites, but more amazing for southern whites] must enter the CP cleansed of chauvinism…At the end of the decade [1920s] the Party had finally admitted the need to win the trust of  blacks and to strongly resist any backsliding on social equality. The Communists had come to believe that racial segregation and the savaging of black identity represented both an institutional foundation for American capitalism and its weak point. To compromise with racism in any way strengthened capitalism and wounded its most potent foes…concessions to segregation and inequality would validate racism and sacrifice blacks’ trust in white radicals. ‘ (128)

I still find it hard to imagine how hard it must have been to place this front and centre, but they did, and they were right to insist that it was this racism that prevented any united sense of class, right that freedom could not be obtained while these divisions existed. As Solomon continues:

“A real Bolshevik Leninist understanding” of racism, Harry Haywood intoned, held that liberation from the bonds of such oppression was inextricably “part of the question of the proletarian revolution” — a precondition for achieving Lenin’s historic alliance of the workers and subject peoples in common struggle against capitalism and imperialism. …. By locating the source of white chauvinism in the ideology and interest of the ruling class, the Party held an ominous sword over its members. What was more serious than the accusation that a Communist was doing the work of the class enemy? (130)

And so some of this work was amazing. The 20s drew to an end, the Great Depression hit. We see the brilliant movement of the Unemployed Councils, working to return possessions back into the homes of those who had been evicted and organizing rent strikes. In Chicago, 1931, Unemployed  Councils organized on South Side of Chicago. Solomon notes that one day in July they restored 4 families to their homes in one day. Yet the police were cracking down. While the UCs continued fighting through 1933, there is no doubt that 1931 saw them at their height. The CP admitted they were unable to maintain the enthusiasm and engagement, and noted the ‘internal tedium’ of party politics as a factor. Reading some of the descriptions of party life, it is easy to see why. Meetings and meetings, circles of judgement and criticism, show trials. I mean, they had show trials. I had no idea, but you can see how the structures emerging from a calcifying Russian revolution (a whole tragedy in itself about to unfold there of course) were already beginning to crush the spirit.

It took a while though.

This early period also saw a branching out to work in wider collaborations. A number of middle-class Black leaders also endorsed the party given their stance on the race question, like Countee Cullen. The CP was running dozens of black candidates for political offices, not to win but as mass actions to educate and politicize around unemployment and racial equality. They had some incredible victories beyond the Unemployment Councils. Like the strike in St Louis where on May 15, 100 women  working in the nut industry (!) walked out demanding a pay rise, 3 weeks later 1000 black women struck, the next day white women walked out in solidarity. My favourite line in the book:

‘The women armed themselves with ‘brick-sandwiches’ to confront strikebreakers’ (251)

In Chicago 800 women, black and white, won a partial victory on strike against B. Sopkins Dress Company. Solomon gives us names I had not heard of the, the women who led this movement in Harlem — Maude White, Louise Thompson, Augusta Savage, Williana Burroughs of Hunter College (keep seeing this college referenced here though I had not heard of it before, seems to be an amazing radical place to look into). Increasingly the movement is being driven by those who are American born. There is a real sense of movement though, of hope. And then the CP stepped in once again. Good in some ways, that 1935 opening up, ‘accelerating the popular front’. CP members were able to work in growing coalitions — they even included Father Divine in Harlem. But this signaled the beginning of a move away from organizing, the liberation of Blacks, the anti-racist strategies. They dropped tenants wholesale. 1936 was a bit early for this so that’s not really covered here (like Iton’s work), there is a little more about it in Manning Marable, Robert Fisher and others. There is just a sense of impending tragedy, the story of the black Share Croppers Union — trying to ally with others with the help of Highlander (Don West, the cofounder of Highlander with Horton is mentioned a number of times in the book) — they fail,  and face a horrible wave of repression after they strike, they face murder and assassination.

This history is swallowed up. Rarely retold. Needing to be kept alive.

[Solomon, Mark (1998) The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-36. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi}

Rinku Sen’s Stir It Up #2 — Organizing in Practice

Second post on Stir It Up by Rinku Sen of CTWO (first post here) — this one on the nitty gritty of it all. Which being an academic now I find less exciting than when I was an organizer, though as much or more important than the other stuff I know. Anyway. In Sen’s opinion there has been a real shift in community organizing, and it’s during this shift and in this realm that I came of age really, so this rings true though I am discovering that there is more continuity than I had thought. She describes what she calls the ‘New Community Organizing Practices’, which certainly reflected some of SAJE’s work while I was there I think. Though we maybe took on more ‘winnable’ issues apart from gentrification itself, but no one has beat that yet have they… just held it at bay. Folks like LA CAN and Union de Vecinos have been doing that with might and brilliance for decades now.

In a significant shift in practice, community organizations are increasingly taking up the issues and constituencies mainstream groups refuse to touch. There has been significant innovation in three particular areas. First, groups have begun to organize the most marginalized people rather than those occupying the middle. The organizing of undocumented immigrants, victims of police brutality, and single mothers is indicative of this trend. Second, groups choose issues that enable the organizing of the worst-off, sometimes privileging those concerns over blander issues that might be more winnable. Third, political education has been added to organizing practice. (lxiii)

CHAPTER ONE: NEW REALITIES, INTEGRATED STRATEGIES

So a chapter here on the political and economic realities:

This chapter is about what I consider the central political and economic trends we need to take into account while we do our work. In the United States today, three trends in particular are relevant to every progressive group: the resurgence of conservative movements and the power gained by such movements in the United States since the early 1970s; the character and organization of the new economy, which is distinguished by the rising use of neoliberal policies and contingent workers; and the continued, unyielding role of racism and sexism in the organization of society. (1)

These are the underlying trends that organizing works needs to be tackling. So what needs doing? Another list:

  • Increasing Progressive Organizing, (18)

  • Addressing Core Ideas and Values: The base building, the development of sustained campaigns, and the research and media work are essentially techniques with no specific moral, economic, or political values attached to them; they are meaningless unless we also address the core ideas that shape society. (20)

  • Supporting Large Social Movements: We need to develop a movement orientation to our organizing. (21)

That’s a big one, but at the same time movement isn’t really something you can create — Piven and Cloward talk about this, and I think we all agree. So what is the role of the organizer in the meantime? Aldon Morris talks about Halfway Houses, Myles Horton thought about this in relation to Highlander. I like the below as well:

While we can’t control all the factors that enable a movement to develop, we can build our organizations in such a way as to be ready for movement work when the time is right. Most experienced activists believe that movements emerge from a specific set of conditions—rising expectations among the disenfranchised, a backlash against the status quo, or demographic shifts—in addition to explicit organizing. Being ready requires, in the first place, shifts in our work patterns and attitudes. For example, rather than figuring out how to do everything in one organization, we need to think more about how to create and support complementary organizations that work together to get the job done. Such a division of labor requires a deep understanding of and mutual respect for all the functions necessary to organize people, ideas, and money. (22)

CHAPTER TWO: ORGANIZING NEW CONSTITUENCIES

Organizing can mean a lot of things to different people, I like her simple list of what it is (and why).

By organizing, I mean an effort to build organizations that include at least these five elements:

  • A clear mission and goals
  • A membership and leadership structure, with a way for people to join and take roles
  • Outreach systems that concentrate on those most affected
  • Issue campaigns featuring multiple tactics, including direct action
  • Pursuit of changing institutions rather than individuals

These elements combine to produce power and a shift in how people are treated as a result. (24-25)

I also like this breakdown of the underlying principles, and the impacts these have on the work you do, how you do it, and who can work with you:

Four major principles form the basis of our organizing efforts. First, our organizing strategy, our plan to build or expand a particular constituency, holds implications for the way we structure our organizations. Second, every organization has its own culture, which has to be shaped and refined to make room for the participation of particular groups. Third, we need to match our recruitment methods to the people we want to reach. Fourth, if we use services to attract members, we have to be extra vigilant that service provision doesn’t take over the organizing. (26)

That last one? Hard. We used services around evictions to ensure we still had some members but still. Hard. This, though? It’s all about this:

Organizing is essentially the process of creating politically active constituencies out of people with problems by focusing on their strengths and the solutions embedded in their experience. It is the basic work of progressive social change. (47)

CHAPTER THREE: PICKING THE GOOD FIGHT

Choosing campaigns…breaking down the difference between issues and problems. All organizing manuals talk about this.

Webster’s dictionary defines issue as a conflict between two parties. Organizers distinguish issues from problems. Problems refer to large-scale systems that are too large and vague to help us focus on real changes worth fighting for. Identifying specific issues within large-scale problems helps us define clear conflicts to which our group can propose a resolution. Issues always have at least three elements: a constituency with a grievance, a set of demands that address that grievance, and an institutional target at whom the grievance is directed. If a group cannot identify these three elements with specificity, then it is probably still dealing at the level of problems rather than carving out issues. (48)

I loved the principles, but loved also this acknowledgement about the realities of people’s lives and how they don’t quite fit into easy traditional models to deal with it, and the benefit of wisdom gained over years looking back:

Students of color, women, and lesbian/gay/bi/trans (LGBT) students, arguably the most explicitly marginalized constituencies on their campuses, frequently resisted our characterization of “good” issues. They asserted, quite correctly, that they rarely had the luxury to choose issues. Issues were thrust on them by oppressive institutional policies and practices that forced them into a survival mode. Furthermore, they said, choosing issues creates a hierarchy among oppressions: groups have to make implicit, if not explicit, judgments about which issues are important enough to work on and which are not, who deserves liberation and who does not.

Today, I would suggest that those students create their own criteria for prioritizing issues. While it is true that some attacks must be answered, having clear criteria can help you respond effectively, as well as move beyond defense posture to victories that improve the quality of life. (50)

Some great lists for choosing issues — first from Midwest Organizing Academy and then CTWOs own. Go look at them.

CHAPTER FOUR: READY, SET, ACTION! (79)

There isn’t much new here that isn’t in in Miller’s or Hunter’s books. I do love the reminder though, 5 reasons why direct action is so important:

While the idea of direct action is often scary, using it can provide important benefits. First, direct action can clarify the stakes, presenting our take on an issue in sharp contrast to other proposals or the status quo. This kind of clarification makes it less likely that the interests of our constituency will be negotiated away by people who are not affected—a distinct possibility when liberal policy, research and lobbying groups are deeply involved in a controversial issue, whether it be welfare or immigration. (79-80)

Second, nothing is better than a well-timed confrontation to help targets feel the pressure, which leads to victories that weren’t forthcoming without the action.

Third, direct action demystifies the halls of power for a constituency, and the people occupying those halls start to realize it and treat us with more respect.

Fourth, face-to-face conflict can sometimes help protect the members of a group when they are under attack. The mere process of taking risks together, which direct action requires, helps to build the group’s sense of itself as a group. Actions can also help protect individuals who are having problems with the system by making it clear that they are surrounded by a whole group.

Fifth, direct action offers fun, creative, and effective ways to get your message out. (80)

It is definitely the campaign that makes the action meaningful, and the political education and critical consciousness that needs to be built with it that creates real change.

Still, no matter how successful any individual direct action is, it is meaningless outside of a campaign. Campaigns indicate sustained intervention on a specific issue; they have clear short- and long-term goals, a timeline, creative incremental demands, targets who can meet those demands, and an organizing plan to build a constituency and build internal capacity. Within campaigns, different tactics accomplish different goals. There are tactics for building a base, recruiting allies, educating the larger public, and proving a point, in addition to those that pressure targets. Campaigns require planning and discipline, the ability to think about life in six-month, one-year, or multiyear terms. Many organizations do great actions but cannot sustain a defined campaign that pursues a specific set of demands that fit into their larger vision. (81)

I do like these too, having now participated in numerous protests in this country where not a single damn one of these ever happens, despite my own protests:

There are three important principles in using direct action effectively. First, each action has to have a clear purpose grounded in an irrefutable need and expressed in the action’s specific target and demand. Second, the best actions are heavily choreographed. Third, direct actions are always part of a larger campaign.

This grows long, I just want to capture key points to think about later, to compare to others. So what follows are just the chapter headings and the principles that encapsulate CTWO’s best practices:

CHAPTER FIVE: LEADING THE WAY

There are four key principles of leadership development. First, successful organizations distinguish between leadership identification and deeper development. Second, they formalize their leadership development programs, using popular education methods and grounding development in the daily work of the organization. Third, they pay attention to the race, class, gender, and cultural issues embedded in leadership development. Finally, they actively plan for the renewal and regeneration of leadership, from supporting an individual in avoiding burnout to managing leadership transitions well. (98-99)

CHAPTER SIX: TAKE BACK THE FACTS

There are three basic principles for conducting research for organizing purposes. First, consider the ways in which you can combine your research with outreach and issues development. Second, use human sources rather than paper as much as possible. Third, figure out whether you are better off doing your research internally or creating a partnership with another organization. (118)

Research is close to my heart, and I’ve a stack of things to get through on action research and PAR but I will add a second paragraph:

To use research to work on issues, we have to know where we are in the issue-development process before starting the research. Are we choosing an issue, reframing it, or developing a campaign plan? Choosing an issue requires a research process that determines what the constituency cares about, whether a solution is available, and whether we can craft an issue that meets our criteria. Reframing an issue requires detailed data, sometimes stories but often hard numbers, that dispute or discredit information put out by the other side. Developing a campaign plan requires tactical research—gathering specific information about targets and potential pitfalls embedded in our demands. (121)

CHAPTER SEVEN: UNITED WE STAND

There are four key principles to remember here. First, a group has to distinguish between different forms of collaboration and choose the one that matches its goals and capacities. Second, each partner in a collaboration has to have substantial self-interest and similar politics, although the need for political negotiation is ongoing. Third, organizations need to bring resources into an alliance or network, and those contributions have to be structured to equalize power and credit among the partners. Fourth, these formations work best when one party is responsible for staffing them; long-term alliances and networks require their own staffing and infrastructure. (136)

There is so much more here, I think, about alliance building. Particularly for me, how this is done to scale while still being grassroots led and in a world of scarce resources/lack of time/inability to travel because of immigration status or family commitments or poverty. I think anyone working at a national scale struggles a lot with this, even more so at an international scale.

CHAPTER EIGHT: Speaking Truth to Power

There are five key considerations in expanding organizational media capacity: crafting a strategy that adjusts messages and materials according to the audience; developing sharp, polarizing messages based on shared values; recognizing the importance of designing our own print, radio, and electronic media; understanding the media and building relationships with reporters, including challenging outlets when necessary; and, finally, using people within our own organization as sources. (150)

CHAPTER NINE: EDUCATION FOR ENGAGEMENT

If we are going to engage in political education, we need to keep four principles in mind. First, clarity about the purpose of our political education will help define the approach we take and the questions we ask. Second, we need to avoid dogmatic rhetoric by grounding our political-education work in fact and inquiry. Third, we need to balance education with our primary goal, political organizing. Fourth, varying the medium of education will keep people engaged. Fifth, exploring solutions will help prevent our members from becoming depressed after political-education sessions. (167)

CONCLUSION: Community Organizing—Tomorrow

This is just me being lazy, recapping it all with two copied paragraphs. But I myself need to remember things like this, and it’s hard, so a nice way to end.

There’s a lot to pay attention to: changes in the economy, implications of identity, the connection between local communities and global trends, the tactics of the opposition, as well as how our organizations are shaping themselves. Paying attention is about being self-conscious in the best sense—having a heightened awareness of what’s going on with us and around us. It does not mean knowing everything about everything, but it does mean expanding our notion of what is relevant to our work.

But being aware without a commitment to action divorces us from real life and keeps us from distinguishing what requires our attention from what doesn’t. In this age of rapid information diffusion, that is a dangerous thing. Much of the information coming our way catalogues the horrors of being a regular person, the terrible consequences of the policies that control our lives. Without a commitment to taking action that will improve conditions, we don’t demand the kind of information we need to make changes, and we become paralyzed by what we know. (183)

Action is required.

[Sen, Rinku (2003) Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizin and Advocacy. San Francisco: Chardon Press.

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Origins of Fear…from Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

Cora rarely thought of the boy she had killed. She did not need to defend her actions in the woods that night; no one had the right to call her to account. Terrance Randall provided a model for a mind that could conceive of North Carolina’s new system, but the scale of the violence was hard to settle in her head. Fear drove these people, even more than cotton money. The shadow of the black hand that will return what has been given. It occurred to her one night that she was one of the vengeful monsters they were scared of: She had killed a white boy. She might kill one of them next. And because of that fear, they erected a new scaffolding of oppression on the cruel foundation laid hundreds of years before. That was Sea Island cotton the slaver had ordered for his rows, but scattered among the seeds were those of violence and death, and that crop grew fast. The whites were right to be afraid. One day the system would collapse in blood (206)

Loved this book.

[Whitehead, Colson (2016) The Underground Railroad. London: Fleet.]

Essential Writings from Winona LaDuke

Winona LaDuke…damn. This collection is so due to be updated (hold on a second, it has been! A new collection, The Winona LaDuke Chronicles, came out this year). Published in 2002 this reader already represents decades of struggle and wisdom, imagine what that must look like now? She is still fighting at Standing Rock, still going strong to defend lands and peoples, still writing and speaking. It is humbling to read these words.

From ‘Building with Reservations’, speaking to architects and educators she described this:

If I were to describe the architecture of my community, I would describe it both as an architecture of poverty and an architecture of what is sacred. … But there is this sorrow–I have to say sorrow–that exists when you are stripped of the cultural integrity of your house, of your architecture, and given something that does not resonate. Sure, it provides a shelter, but as you all know, a house is more than a shelter: it is a home, it is something that reflects you. So that is the architecture of poverty in my community.

And then you have the architecture that is sacred. Next to some of these houses, you’ll see a sweat lodge, or you’ll see a miichwaap, which is like a tepee, but it is used for smoking meat. The most beautiful thing to me is when I consider the fact that a lodge that is used for one of our ceremonies is based on the mirror of a star constellation; it reflects where the poles are located. That, in its essence, is sacred architecture. I think that that is the most beautiful thing in our community. (46-47)

I’m pretty obsessed with with ideas of home, of architecture, I love this redefinition of poverty in architecture which we are in fact seeing in gleaming steel and concrete across all of our cities in the form of luxury apartments built for the global market. So different than pieces of shit HUD homes on the reservation, I don’t mean to compare them in any other sense beyond their bankruptcy of creativity or human feeling.

She talks later on about the importance of culture, the way that in universities it is treated as anthropology and folklore rather than literature and something vibrant and lived. She writes

In my life and in the life of my family, many of us in our community find that those teachings are not about the process of going back, but that’s kind of the mythology that surrounds the view of native people… It’s not about that at all. It’s about recovering that which the Creator gave us as instructions, and then walking that path… (173)

It provides an alternative — not to be appropriated but to be learned from — of systems that value balance and ‘a good life’ over profit. Like this:

There should be beauty in “process,” whether it is harvesting with intelligence, whether it is the use of recycled materials, or whether it is observing energy efficiency. (53)

It is particularly explicit in the essay on ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Environmental Futures’, a term I know has been problematised, but which lays out a different basis and a better source of expertise for our thinking about how we relate to the world around us:

Traditional Ecological knowledge is the culturally and spiritually based way in which indigenous peoples relate to their ecosystems. This knowledge is founded on spiritual-cultural instructions from “time immemorial” and on generations of observation within an ecosystem of continuous residence. I believe that this knowledge also represents the clearest empirically based system for resource management and ecosystem protection in North America, and I will argue that native societies’ knowledge surpasses the scientific and social knowledge of the dominant society in its ability to provide information and a management style for environmental planning.  (78)

It is based around a very different idea of success, of life’s meaning.

“Minobimaatisiiwin,” or the “good life,” is the basic objective of the Anishinaabeg and Cree people who have historically, and to this day, occupied a great portion of the north-central region of the North American continent. An alternative interpretation of the word is “continuous rebirth.” This is how we traditionally understand the world and how indigenous societies have come to live within natural law. Two tenets are essential to this paradigm: cyclical thinking and reciprocal relations and responsibilities to the Earth and creation. Cyclical thinking, common to most indigenous or land-based cultures and value systems, is an understanding that the world (time, and all parts of the natural order-including the moon, the tides, women, lives, seasons, or age) flows in cycles. Within this understanding is a clear sense of birth and rebirth and a knowledge that what one does today will affect one in the future, on the return. A second concept, reciprocal relations, defines responsibilities and ways of relating between humans and the ecosystem. (79)

I don’t know how different, in fact, Minobimaatisiiwin actually is from what most people outside of these traditions would term a fulfilling life, but we have still bowed before money and power as measures of success and as enough justification for any number of terrible things. She describes a very different understanding of development, light years removed from that which now prevails but without question one way, perhaps the only way, to step back from the precipice of ecological disaster:

By its very nature, “development”–or, concomitantly, an “economic system” based on these ascribed Indigenous values-must be decentralized, self-reliant, and very closely based on the carrying capacity of that ecosystem. (80)

And this is, indeed, a very good question:

I believe there is a more substantial question meriting discussion: Can North American society craft the social fabric to secure a traditional management practice, based on consensual understanding and a collective process? (82)

I am taking these out of order here, thinking about how this all connects to our relationship to the earth, that perhaps many of our problems emerge because we have been so divorced from place:

Implicit in the concept of Minobimaatisiiwin is a continuous inhabitation of place, an intimate understanding of the relationship between humans and the ecosystem, and the need to maintain that balance. These values and basic tenets of culture made it possible for the Cree, Ojibway, and many other indigenous peoples to maintain economic, political, religious, and other institutions for generations in a manner that would today be characterized as sustainable.4 (80)

She returns later to this topic:

Native environmental groups have a commitment and tenacity that springs from place. “This is where my grandmother’s and children’s umbilical cords are buried … That is where the great giant lay down to sleep … That is the last place our people stopped in our migration here to this village.” Our relationships to land and water is continuously reaffirmed through prayer, deed, and our way of life. Our identity as human beings is founded on creation stories tying us to the earth, and to a way of being, minobimaatisiiwin, “the good life.” (57-58)

It is not just positionality and the structural oppression faced by indigenous communities, but this connection to place that drives experience, meaning and struggle.

All this to say that Native communities are not in a position to compromise, because who we are is our land, our trees, and our lakes. This is central to our local and collective work. (62)

There is a lot about land in here, and what has destroyed traditional connections to it:

The governance of this land by traditional ecological knowledge has been adversely affected by genocide, colonialism, and subsequent circumstances that need to be considered in the current dialogue on North American resource management, the role of the environmental movement, and indigenous peoples. (82)

She describes the two worldviews at play:

The conflict between two paradigms-industrial thinking and indigenous thinking-becomes central to the North American and, indeed to the worldwide, environmental and economic crisis. … For many indigenous peoples, the reality is as sociologist Ivan Illich has suggested: development practices are in fact a war on subsistence. (86-87)

Capitalism, industrialism…can the two be separated? But it is definitely a war and this seems to be exactly the idea that we might belong to the earth that is being decimated. The clearances and enclosures in Europe were to the same end.

Akiing is the word for land in our language, and in the indigenous concept of land ownership or the Anishinaabeg concept of land ownership, it is much more a concept that we belong to that land than the land belongs to us. … land tenure itself and concepts of land ownership are of course a concept of culture–they are a concept of your teachings, a construct of how you are raised and how you live in your community. (138)

Important to always remember that these things are not natural or self-evident but constructed. And the creation of the US is definitely one of predator…I am pondering how this might help us think about the political economy of land.

Indigenous people traditionally have been the people who have lived on the land, but the predator/prey relationship that exists between America and the land is one that has caused the constant erosion and taking of the indigenous land base in the Americas. And it has caused the constant erosion and the taking of other people’s land outside of that context as well. (143)

Again mobility, predation, frontiers, all those things that capital needs, as opposed to connection, balance, care…

One of the challenges that we have in America is that America is built on conquest, not on survival. It is a society, by and large, based on the concept that there is always a West, always a frontier. There will always be someplace to go. We don’t necessarily have to give thanks for where we are because we’re moving.

That is the challenge..This conceptual framework between one worldview and another worldview, indigenous and industrial, or land-based and predator….the predator world-view. It is, in fact, manifest in how we live here. And every ecological crisis we have today is a direct consequence of that… (180)

From the land to rights as Native women, I loved her speech ‘I fight like a woman’ from the UN Conference on Women in China, 1995.

Positionality:

As one woman, Corrine Kumar from the Asian Women’s Human Rights Association explained simply, “From the periphery of power human rights looks different.” (205)

A challenge to mobile, global power to look those it is destroying in the eye:

Vicki Corpuz is an Igarok woman from the Philippines, head of the Cordinera Women’s Association. … “We found that a lot of our problems were related to trans-national corporations and institutions. And we thought it was time to get more accountability from them. We can do basic empowerment work here – but all the decisions are actually made elsewhere. They should have to look at us in the face when they make those decisions.” (208)

The need for indigenous peoples (as true of other struggles) to operate at a global level…

It was several years ago Mililani Trask, Kia Aina or Head of State of the Native Hawaiian Nation changed her mind about work. “The real reason why all Indigenous people have to be apprised of, or involved in the international arena is because their individual land-based struggles will be impacted by these nation states and international interests.” (209)

More on militarism — I love this quote, hate what the US and others are doing on other people’s lands…

Militarism is a form of colonization which takes away from our lives. That future is without hope for us. But, we will fight for our rights. I believe in nonviolence and civil disobedience. I am ready to go to jail, to take blows or die for our cause, because I believe in the struggle for the freedom of my people. I don’t want your sympathy, I want your support, your strong and collective support against the oppression of your government. What are need is your resistance.” Penote Ben Michel made this plea at a 31 January 1987 conference in Montreal on militarism in Labrador/Nitassinan. (230)

I am furious with Geroge Dubya all over again. I volunteered to do precinct walking for Kerry in Vegas I was so furious with that man. Might have campaigned for her, though, if I’d been a little more woke, though I still might have bowed to the dual party system.

This is from her acceptance speech for the nomination for Vice Presidential candidate, running with Nader.

I am not inclined toward electoral politics. Yet I am impacted by public policy. I am interested in reframing the debate on the issues of this society — the distribution of power and wealth, the abuse of power and the rights of the natural world, the environment and the need to consider an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in which all decisions made today will be considered in light of their impact on the seventh generation from now. That is, I believe, what sustainability is all about. These are vital subjects which are all too often neglected by the rhetoric of “major party” candidates and the media.

I believe that decision making should not be the exclusive right of the privileged. (267)

All of that. We need all of that.

This is only a sampling of some of what I loved most/have been thinking about most recently. There is so much more here, and of course so much more written since this was published.

[LaDuke, Winona (2002) The Winona LaDuke Reader: A Collection of Essential Writings. Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press.]

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