Category Archives: Struggle & Movement

In Defense of Housing: Madden & Marcuse

Madden and Marcuse have written a great book here  in In Defense of Housing — concise, clear, and challenging to the status quo. It is a great outline of some of the key structural challenges we face, and ways forward to short and long-term transformation of how we deal with housing.

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower is only one in a long line of tragedies caused by putting profit over human life. These moments of spectacular violence shock and enrage — hopefully driving a will to change. But there is a slow violence at work here too, the way high rents drive anxiety and force families to make hard choices every day of every month, and the way poor housing conditions destroy both physical and mental health every minutes spent inside which add up to a life damaged and often death at a younger age.

In thinking about housing  in the US, there is a key fact to start: There is no state in the US where someone working full time on minimum wage can afford to rent a one-bedroom apt paying what is ‘affordable’.

That generally means paying no more than one third of your income. That is fucking crazy, right? Forget about trying to have any kind of family on that income. Forget about living life well on that income. Leaving two choices, which should probably go together — raise minimum wage, and lower what people must pay for a home.

These are eminently political questions. We go back to good old Engels.

We take from Engels the idea that the housing question is embedded within the structures of class society. Posing the housing question today means uncovering the connections between societal power and the residential experience. It means asking who and what housing is for, who controls it, who it empowers, who it oppresses. It means questioning the function of housing within globalized neoliberal capitalism. (6)

Like Harvey and Lefebvre, Marcuse and Madden emphasise:

Housing and urban development today are not secondary phenomena. Rather, they are becoming some of the main processes driving contemporary capitalism. (8)

Thus it is real estate and housing development that is soaking up investment and driving the accumulation of wealth. The other end of the spectrum?

for poor and working class communities, housing crisis is the norm. (9)

You been there, you don’t need anyone to tell you what that’s like. All because someone’s making money off your housing.

I found the distinctions between the US and the UK useful to think about, I am still getting my head round them.

In the United States, the discourse of housing crisis is often used to condemn state “interference” in housing markets. In the UK, the crisis frame is invoked in support of granting new legal powers to developers in order to override local planning guidelines. (10)

Above all I appreciate Marcuse’s point that the housing crisis is not a result of the system breaking down, but of the system working as it is intended.

Just let that sit a while. Writing this in the aftermath of the horror and death in Grenfell Tower, there could be no better way to capture just how capital and government collude to maximize profit on real estate, cutting corners, silencing complaint, and in the end killing children.

Thinking about this really comes home, when they write:

The built form of housing has always been seen as a tangible, visual reflection of the organization of society. It reveals the existing class structure and power relationships. But it has long been a vehicle for imagining alternative social orders. Every emancipatory movement must deal with the housing question in one form or another. (12)

We can see what our current system has brought us in the flames exploding up to engulf that building. Time to imagine something better. Still, there’s not much behind that sentence in the book itself.  There is so much more to explore there, but at least it is signaled here. Also the importance of land in defining identity

…struggles over housing are always, in part, struggles over autonomy. … No other modern commodity is as important for organizing citizenship, work, identities, solidarities, and politics. (12)

But what is missing here is mortality, morbity, life chances and particularly how this ties to segregation and racism. of course, this is where my own work focuses, so I’m bound to be critical. They have a section for intersectionality, that always drives me a little crazy, because there is a lot more going on there and it weaves through everything. My principal critique I think.

Against the commodification of housing

This is key, well-argued, everyone involved in housing should be working to this end and that means a substantial shift in some of the strategies used by both charities and advocates. There was a time in the UK when most land wasn’t actually a commodity — more acts of violence were needed to make that happen, through the privatization of the commons. This was still in process in the 1840s:

when Engels was surveying the dwelling conditions of the great towns of industrial Britain, he was in part describing the emerging impact of the commodification of housing. (22)

Through this period, housing became

ever less an infrastructure for living, and evermore an instrument for financial accumulation. (26)

The problem in a nice nutshell there. I think there’s more to tease out about how housing and neighbourhood remain part of the social reproduction of power and wealth, with segregation/enclaves occurring globally now. Still, it’s very true that real estate is increasingly the driver of the economy per Harvey and Lefebvre, they look at three other trends leading to hyper-commodification of housing:

  1. removal of restrictions on real estate as a commodity
  2. financialisation — ‘a generic term to describe the increasing power and prominence of actors and firms that engage in profit accumulation through the servicing and exchanging of money and financial instruments.’ (31)
  3. globalization — housing market now dominated by economic networks global in scope

These ensure housing has become a commodity as never before — and easily converted to investment capital, the heart of the present crisis.

The value of super-prime real estate is secure because of the ease with which it can be converted into money through loans, debentures, mortgages (37)

Full deregulation and building new housing cannot be the answers to the crisis. First, because the

State has always been central to the process of making housing a commodity…Government sets the rules of the game. It enforces the sanctity of contracts, establishes and defends regimes of property rights…[connects] the financial system to the bricks and mortar… (46-47)

Second because of issues around power — housing is a domain of struggle.

The commodification of housing is a political project that refuses to acknowledge itself as such. (47)

Opposed to people’s needs for a home, the real estate industry does anything possible to raise prices within a market now moved by global investment forces, not local demand for somewhere to live. Marcuse and Madden write:

The solution to the housing problem, then, is not moralism, but the creation of an alternative residential logic. Exhorting for-profit real estate companies to act differently in the name of creating a less vicious housing system is pointless. Housing problems are not the result of greed or dishonesty. They result from the structural logical of the current housing system. Alternative, decommodified models of residential development must therefore be created. (52)

Residential Alienation

Like Lefebvre, they apply the idea of alienation to housing in addition to more traditional Marxist uses of alienation in labour.

Alienation means estrangement, objectification, or othering. The idea is rarely applied to housing, but it should be. (56)

They begin to get at the meaning of home (see Dovey or Cooper-Marcus for much deeper examinations of this…)

Home is an extension and expression of our capacity to create. It takes an infinite variety of forms, but making a home for ourselves is an essential and universal activity. Residential alienation is what happens when a capitalist class captures the housing process and exploits it for its own ends. (58-59)

They summarise experience of today’s housing market in three words: precarity, insecurity, disempowerment. (59) They write ‘In America, the narrative that housing is the key to dignity and stability is deeply ingrained…’ (74) but this is only true for elites. We need a new definition for a successful society, and that is one where ‘the residential good life is provided to everyone’ (82)

Disalienation would mean reorganizing the housing system around the goal of providing residential stability and ontological security for all. (83)

Oppression and Liberation in Housing

In all social settings, dwelling space structures power relations. It can be used to maintain the social order, or to support challenges to it… housing is part and parcel of social and political struggles. (86)

Yep. Housing is worth fighting for. I can never quite believe that this has been a struggle for so many marxists.

I confess hadn’t thought much before of the additional benefits of emptying the discontent from the city centre.

The zones of empty luxury housing at the center of global cities are as peaceful as cemeteries. Commodification is not only a strategy for capital accumulation. It is also a technique of governance, a political process as much as an economic one. (94)

After nodding my head through all of this,  I then found here a subtitle — the intersectionality of residential oppression. The nodding stopped, I must confess that I don’t really like that this isn’t woven through, that it is a section apart, contained.  It kept bugging me. But there’s some good stuff here. I like bell hooks’s idea of the ‘homeplace’

“where all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship and deprivation.” from Yearning, Race, Gender and Cultural Politics. NY:Routledge 2015, p 42

I think this is so important to recognise, home is a place of strength. We don’t just need affordable housing, but housing that enables its residents to ‘confront power, social inequality, and structural violence…’ (117)

The Myths of Housing Policy

I always enjoy some myth debunking. These two are doozies.

  • The myth of the benevolent state — that the government has tried to solve the housing crsis, acting for the benefit of the majority. Nope.

all based on controlling the poor, preventing revolution and worst infectious diseases. Actions like slum clearence, despite all claims to the contrary, were always prey to real estate and development interests from the beginning. Then there’s idea of ‘Affordable’, an ideological term, and one that helps legitimize the building of luxury housing if it ensures provision of a little ‘affordable’ housing as a result. Rather vomitous

  • The myth of the meddling state — one that just gets in the way arising through the 1980s. But this ignores the need for the state to guarantee the conditions for the housing market to exist, so the state is always involved, it just depends on which side.

The question will always be how the state should act towards housing, not whether it should do so. (142)

This narrative of the meddling state prevents an open view of the services the state renders to housing markets. A useful obfuscation.

Housing Movements of New York

I’m glad this was in here.

Conclusion: For A Radical Right to Housing

They argue for struggle to ensure housing as a right, and look to steps that are small enough to be doable, but that point towards much deeper structural change towards a true right to the city. Useful thinking for housing organisers. There three main areas of suggested action are:

  • To decommodify and de-financialize the housing system (as an overarching goal) — public control, rent control, secure tenancies, public ownership of land, public financing, limits on speculation, regulation of home-finance mechanisms (201)
  • To expand, defend and improve public housing (203)
  • To let a thousand housing alternatives bloom — cooperatives, mutuals, communes, limited equity co-ownership, land trusts (209)

A good place to start.

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John Berger on Ways of Seeing

John Berger Ways of SeeingWays of Seeing by John Berger is a most wonderful wonderful book. Told both in words and pictures, what follows is a lopsided collection of sentences that does some violence to the whole I confess. I was particularly interested in photography, but found myself swept away into other places and didn’t mind at all. It is a book I look forward to reading many more times — and hunting down the series as well. I so wish I had been lucky enough to have been given this to read in the high school Art History class that has remained with me all through my years. Better late than never.

It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. (7)

Nothing is ever settled. I love this unsettling. Love this sense of history:

The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. Consequently, fear of the present leads to mystification of the past. The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act. (11)

Just a sentence and then off he goes in another direction. I want to think more about this alongside Trouillot and the erasings and the silences, but later perhaps.

Because we are off to Frans Hals, always one of my favourites:

Hals was the first portraitist to pain the new characters and expressions created by capitalism. He did in pictorial terms what Balzac did two centuries later in literature. (16)

The regentesses of Haarlem’s almshouse, such an unforgettable picture but never had I thought of it this way:

Frans Hals — Portrait of The Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse Haarlem, 1640s?

And this, my favourite statement of the power that images hold, the potential they carry, a statement that makes me think of things quite differently though I have for a long time been thinking about this — like the wonderful obsessions of Otto Neurath and his isotypes:

If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experience of our relation to the past: that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives, of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.

The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose. (33)

I don’t know why Berger’s passages on oil painting struck me as they did, I think because they represent what a profoundly different way this is of understanding painting as it sits within its context — I love it.

Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. All reality was mechanically measured by its materiality. … Oil painting conveyed a feeling of total exteriority. (87)

I can see this exteriority, feel the velvets and silks under my fingers in these paintings. That always struck me, the incredible details. I think there was such a love of these sumptuous textures in themselves, but yes, also this:

Works of art in earlier traditions celebrated wealth. But wealth was then a symbol of a fixed social or divine order. Oil painting celebrated a new kind of wealth — which was dynamic and which found its only sanction in the supreme buying power of money. Thus painting itself had to be able to demonstrate the desirability of what money could buy. (90)

And then there is the section on advertising, the co-optation of art (not that that was anything new, as can be seen in the quote above) and this unapologetic reading that made me happy:

The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for a full democracy which entails, among other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day dreams. (148)

So to end with photography, which sent me here in the first place and of which I found but little, though I did not care in the slightest.

First, something that seems so simple, and yet… before thinking about it I might have said as a reflex that photography was somehow more ‘objective’, I might still lapse into that feeling. But really,

The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject.  (10)

On the other hand, I had not before thought through how the camera changes our perspective, how it differs from painting, how it decentres us from time and space:

The camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless. Or, to put it another way, the camera showed that the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual (except in paintings)….

This is not to say that before the invention of the camera men believed everyone could see everything. But perspective organized the visual field as though that were indeed the ideal. Every drawing or painting that used perspective proposed to the spectator that he was the unique centre of the world. The camera — and more particularly the movie camera — demonstrated that there was no centre.

The invention of the camera changed the way that we saw. The invisible came to mean something different to them. This was immediately reflected in painting. (18)

This is something I need to think much more about. It’s interesting how this is one of the major differences between Western and non-Western art, it doesn’t surprise me at all that it is Western art of a certain period that put human beings always at the centre. It must be a good thing to destabilise that, but I’m not sure I entirely grasp how photography and film do that. Our own private viewings into the world of others.

But there is so much joy in art and pleasure in thinking about it here…

Robert F. Williams on White Racism

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

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

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

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

I appreciate a section with the title:

Minds Warped by Racism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An inspirational chapter title:

“The Future Belongs to Today’s Oppressed”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do I speak to you from exile?

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

I quote his summation of his philosophy at length:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Williams continues:

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

Some pictures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He continues — this is not just ideological but practical:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And later:

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

To end…Robert Williams in Cuba:

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

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What Ella Baker really thought about Baptist Ministers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space on the Lower East Side

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space is amazing. Its very existence, its declaration of ongoing resistance against gentrification and displacement, and the many wonderful urban spaces to be found on the Lower East Side. A testament to all those who have fought to build community and to preserve it in that face of brutal development pressures driven by the commodification of land.

Ah, the Lower East Side…

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For so long it was only known to me through Neil Smith’s work, his descriptions of the battles over Tompkins Square Park and a vibrancy in the squatting/camping/we-will-not-be-moved-from-these-spaces organising that I always found so inspiring.

I saw it on the map, saw this museum marked there and so we headed that way after the inspiration of Harlem — where better to go?

Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

As a living history of urban activism, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) chronicles the East Village community’s history of grassroots action. It celebrates the local activists who transformed abandoned spaces and vacant lots into vibrant community spaces and gardens. Many of these innovative, sustainable concepts and designs have since spread out to the rest of the city and beyond.

Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

We wandered through the small museum staffed by volunteers — hardly a museum, a wonderful community space of two rooms, one ground floor and the basement where a video is running. The walls of both are lined with pictures and stories of the people who squatted these buildings to create and save housing, transformed vacant lots into vibrant gardens and community spaces, developed movements to push for political will in support of bicycles over cars, as well as cycling lanes, bike racks and respect. This building itself was squatted, which is how this place can exist at all. Every community should have such an accessible shopfront space telling such important stories, with people wandering in and out.

I got a birthday present there! The Architecture of Change , edited by Jerilou Hammett and Maggie Wrigley, an amazing collection of 36 articles from DESIGNER/builder magazine describing movement and struggle around space, design, art, architecture, education and justice (so far, I am only a quarter of the way through) around the country. I opened it up and within the first few pages found a picture of the Vilchis brothers lounging around Boyle heights which made me so happy.

I was less happy that the article failed to mention Union de Vecinos, co-founded by Leonardo and one of the grassroots organisations in LA that I love and admire most. Opportunity lost, they have so much to teach. Ah well.

Tompkins Square Park is still a cool public space full of life and people (though perhaps too much concrete), a very different one than Smith described if I remember rightly (but so much bigger than I was expecting! So maybe my memory is faulty…but still closes at midnight, so no one is welcome to sleep here). And look, Charlie Parker Place.

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A public park alongside a medley of community gardens, they are everywhere, and I was truly smitten. Especially after reading the love and fierce resistance it took to first build and then keep them.

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I wish we’d have had more time here to see some of the other radical spots here, but we were heading over to Williamsburg to meet my cousin. We had a quick walk to the metro — and a quick stop in Bluestockings bookstore on the way. I sent them a lot of emails in my PM Press days, and their amazing selection did not disappoint. Two of the books I’ve worked on under Postcolonial Fiction (!) by Gary Phillips and James Kilgore — seeing that is such a pleasure:

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On the way — Joe Strummer saying know your rights:

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Housing co-ops:

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Such cool city streets and a wealth of things to see and places to eat (omg the best pastrami sandwiches ever at Harry and Ida’s Meat & Supply Co), we loved this place:

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New YorkAnd finally, a wonderful map of the radical spaces of the Lower East Side produce by the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space — I wish we had had more time to explore! Get the pdf here.

 

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Harlem, Sugar Hill and the unmarked homes of legends

There is a wonderful and all-too short video of Faith Ringgold talking about Harlem’s Sugar Hill, and the many people who lived there on the New York Times website from 2010. This comes just above a map that shows building by building where some of the people I admire most once lived.

I wish I had found this earlier. I love hunting down the homes of people who have inspired me, because it always takes you into residential streets, among the everyday places of the city that as a tourist you never see. It also allows you a slightly different glimpse of the person  themselves — after all, I believe places shape us just as we shape places. Of course, a lot has changed in Harlem since these incredible days. There is so much nostalgia not for segregation, but for these spaces that concentrated community in such a way. Look at all of the people who lived only a few blocks from each other.

We did, however, know to find 409 and 555 Edgecombe. But the best site I found (also post-visit), was from the NY architecture site from a report prepared by Elisa Urbanelli, Landmarks Consultant (excerpted here, there is another good history of sugar Hill found in the docs establishing Sugar Hill as a historic district, much of it reintegrated into  the arguing documents to extend the Sugar Hill historic district to include Hamilton Heights).

The Ebony article characterized Sugar Hill society and the residents of 409 and 555 with the observation that “Harlem’s most talked-about men and women in law, sports, civil liberties, music, medicine, painting, business, and literature live on Sugar Hill.” Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. presented a portrait of the Hill’s residential grandeur in 1935:

On Sugar Hill…Harlem’s would-be ‘sassiety’ goes to town. ‘Midst panelled walls, parquet floors, electric refrigeration, colored tile baths, luxurious lobbies, elevators and doormen resplendent in uniforms, they cavort and disport themselves in what is called the best ofay manner.”

There were racketeers and gamblers who called the Hill home, living side by side with judges, scholars, and writers. In the 1940s Ebony reported that Sugar Hill incomes ranged from $3,000 to $7,000 per annum, most being within the upper half of wages in the United States, yet also estimated that one-quarter of Hill dwellers had to take in boarders and make other sacrifices in order to meet expenses. Rents in Harlem were generally high, but in Sugar Hill they were even higher. At 409, tenants paid from fifty to ninety-eight dollars per month, while at 555 Edgecombe, two-and-one-half rooms rented for sixty-six dollars and five rooms for eighty-seven dollars. As one observer commented, “…Harlem prices leave little for luxurious living. The main difference between those on Sugar Hill and those in the slums is the knowledge of where their next meal is coming form and, at night, a spaciousness which helps erase the memory of a Jim Crow day.”

There’s a link to http://www.hometoharlem.com/ at the end of this, but it connects to nothing. I honestly do not know why I didn’t become a landmarks consultant. Best. Job. Ever.

But to return to who actually lived here — I’ve pieced this together from multiple sources, which I find astonishing. There is also an absence of plaques or markers, though it was nice to see a number of streets named after the famous people who had lived on them.

363 Edgecombe is where Faith Ringgold herself lived — I was hoping to see her quilt at The Studio in Harlem, but much of it was closed in preparation for new exhibits. Still.

365 Edgecombe – Cecilia Hodges

375 Edgecombe – Roy Eaton

377 Edgecombe – Sonny Rollins

381 Edgecombe – Joe Lewis

409 Edgecombe: Thurgood Marshall, W. E. B. Du Bois (Du Bois!), Aaron Douglas, William Stanley Braithwaite, Clarence Cameron White, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, Jimmy Lunceford (conductor at the Cotton Club), Dr May Chinn.

I remember from Walter White’s autobiography that he shared a building with Du Bois, it’s actually hard to imagine the two of them and Roy Wilkins occasionally meeting in the lobby. Back to Elisa Urbanelli:

No. 409 Edgecombe was certainly the most prestigious of addresses on Sugar Hill in the 1930s and ’40s. Counted among the residents of this very special enclave were people of national and international significance. As one who grew up at 409, Arnold Braithwaite eloquently explains, “…nowhere in New York City, and perhaps the country, will you find any other apartment building, whose halls and suites echo with the ghosts, as it were, of distinguished men and women, many of international repute, who were forced to over come the obstacles of poverty, for most; of pernicious racism, for all.”

As Ebony stated in the mid-1940s, “legend, only slightly exaggerated, says bombing 409 would wipe out Negro leadership for the next 20 years.” Indeed, residents have included such notable African-American luminaries as scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois; former N.A.A.C.P. leader Walter White; White’s successor, Roy Wilkins; and Thurgood Marshall, who was then special counsel to the same esteemed organization and later became the first African-American Justice on the U.S.Supreme Court. They were joined by New York State Assemblyman William Andrews, Assistant Attorney General of New York State Harry G. Bragg, and Charles Toney, a municipal judge, as well as others who had crossed the racial barrier into the fields of politics and law. Residents involved in the arts included renowned poet, critic, and literary anthologist William Stanley Braithwaite; Aaron Douglas, the famed painter and illustrator of the Harlem Renaissance and head of the art department of Fisk University; Luckey Roberts and Jimmie Lunceford,, popular jazz musicians; actor and singer Jules Bledsoe; and classical composer Clarence Cameron White. Another long-time resident, prominent physician Dr. May Edward Chinn, had an office at the ground story and lived upstairs. (For more information about these and other tenants of 409, see the Appends.)

What it looks like now? Sadly with scaffolding — it felt like almost every building we hoped to see had scaffolding:

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A view beyond to see how it sits on this street, looking down Edgecombe towards the more modest buildings (but still Sugar Hill):

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An atmospheric view down the backside of this stretch of Edgecombe:

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And from here you can see all the way (looking up, it must be said) to 555 Edgecombe.

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A 2010 New York Times piece lists Paul Robeson Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and Lena Horne.

It left off that list Zora Neale Hurston. Wikipedia notes Kenneth Clarke (who wrote an amazing study of Harlem) but forgets his wife Mamie who was equally brilliant, Andy Kirk and Canada Lee. Joe Louis lived here a while too, he, Basie and Robeson are noted in the AIA Guide to New York City. The Lonely Planet adds Billy Strayhorn.

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One of the few old pictures I was able to find:

Here is Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A Train’ up to Sugar Hill (though we took the C)

The loveliest thing of all is that musician Marjorie Eliot opens her room up in the building, inviting people into her living room on Sundays for live jazz.

The saddest thing — that the National Park Service listing for this historic building only lists Robeson. Which is fucking crazy.

I did find one lovely site — While We Are Still Here — that is displaying information about 409 and 555 Edgcombe Ave.

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While We Are Still Here (WWSH) ensures that the “post-gentrification” community of Harlem and beyond will honor and find a meaningful connection to the legacy of African American achievement, and its paramount importance to world culture.

What we didn’t see?

749 St Nicholas Ave — Ralph Ellison

773 St Nicholas Ave — C. Luckeyth (lucky) Roberts

But here’s the view down St Nicholas Ave:

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Harlem though…Harlem is so much more than this of course. We Went to the Schomberg Library, I remember Ella Baker describing coming out of the subway here, staying in the Y.

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Saw The Studio, saw the Apollo, walked past this:

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Walked down some of these streets of the famous brownstones I have read so much about (how can I see these the same after reading Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones?)

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Found 267 W 136th St, a rooming house where almost everyone from the Harlem Renaissance stayed: Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Bennett and others, and closely connected with Fire! magazine.

Nothing here either to note the brilliance these walls have contained.

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We saw memories of Marcus Garvey:

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A bit of East Harlem (SO not enough), memorialised in a Tito Puento street sign:

There is so much more we didn’t see here of course. So much left to see, I should say.

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Environmentalism and Economic Justice in the Southwest: Laura Pulido

Laura Pulido is one of my heroes, and returning to Environmentalism and Economic Justice now that I have some disposable income to buy it…well. It’s brilliant. (Though actually I am realising I don’t actually have any real disposable income at all. Breaks my heart).  It brings together the theory that I believe most needs to be brought together, using the postcolonial and subaltern theory to look at struggles in the US and knocking apart some of the most frustrating aspects of writing around ‘new social movements’ and social movement in general. Then rebuilding it of course, in ways I find particularly useful and illuminating.

Subalternity is not often used in relation to the U.S. — this is how Pulido describes the economic structures and the role of racism in creating conditions of subalternity:

…subaltern environmentalism is embedded in material and power struggles, as well as questions of identity and quality of life. Dominated communities engaged in environmental struggles do not disaggregate their various identities and needs. Although they may engage in strategic essentialism, the practice of reifying aspects of one’s identity for political purposes, they recognize the multiple identities and the various lines of domination and power that need to be resisted and challenged. They build complex movements which simultaneously address issues of identity as well as a wide range of economic issues (production, distribution, and uneven development), thereby defying the various models and paradigms social scientists have created to impose meaning on collective action, in particular, environmentalism. (xv)

This is because for some communities, environmental problems are not just simple quality of life issues, rather:

From the perspective of marginalized communities, environmental problems reflect, and may intensify, larger existing inequalities and uneven power relations. (xv)

While Pulido celebrates the new, postmodern opening up to struggles beyond production such as identity, I love her argument against ditching political economy. Love that she looks to Watts as well as to Arturo Escobar to bring the two together. Because poor people of color experience a complex reality in which resistance is required along lines of both class and race among other things. We need to understand

how multiple forces interact in creating inequality and oppression, and how complex struggles form to overcome it. (xviii)

Elsewhere she writes this intersectionality:

Even though their struggles may be categorized as class conflict, racism, or patriarchal resistance, what is usually at stake are multiple forms of domination, exploitation, and resistance, that narrow applications of class may prevent us from appreciating. (5)

The two studies featured in this volume were chosen to complement the principal focus of environmental justice work at the time, on toxics primarily in urban areas. I like how this expands the focus — though of course, so much work has been done in the past eleven years to further develop this, as can be seen in The Colors of Nature or The Environmental Justice Reader.

A final ingredient is the focus on struggle, and that of course, it recognises that oppression also helps create the conditions for its resistance:

For oppressed communities, a dignified life means being able to live free of cultural oppression and racial and ethnic inequality. Hence, while culture and racism are critical to understanding oppression, they are also essential to illuminating the process of mobilization (xx).

So a good summary of the subaltern nature of environmental justice struggles:

This new form of environmentalism goes by a variety of headings: grassroots, popular, livelihood, resistance, environmental justice, and resource struggles. What they all share is a counterhegemonic, or subaltern, location — they exist in opposition to prevailing powers. (4)

New Social Movements (NSMs)

For NSM researchers, identity has emerged as as a key area of focus…understanding how individuals coalesce and fashion new collective identities is the crucial question in understanding the emergence of social movements.

I understand why she has to engage with this literature more broadly, it was the thing after all. But still I am frustrated with its limitations. Of course Pulido also brings in old favourites — on the transition to post-fordism, she looks to Stuart Hall (1991) to understand the new decentring of self and identity, and how we are made up multiple identities and positions, identify in multiple different ways. Gilroy is in here too on the complexities of it all.

Useful.

The claim that NSMs are only about quality of life issues, or the disagreement over whether racial struggles are NSMs or should be catagorised among older movements? Not so useful. Pulido writes:

The concept of NSMs has become problematic precisely because it has been so widely applied. In reality, its true value is in helping us see what is unique about a limited number of movements. (12)

The idea that some people have to struggle on multiple fronts? Obvious I would have thought, and yet…apparently not to everyone. But it is to subaltern scholars:

Subaltern movements are simultaneously about both material concerns and systems of meaning, thereby challenging the notion that identity issues are not of concern to those struggling to survive.

She quotes Arturo Escobar rather extensively (I love Escobar, haven’t managed to write about him yet, and will find it difficult precisely because of the desire to quote him even more extensively than I usually quote people, his book is full full full of underlining)

It is essential to recognize the importance of economic factors and their structural determinants. But just as crucial as the reconstruction of economies — and indelibly linked to it — is the reconstitution of meanings at all levels, from everyday life to national development. Social movements must be seen equally and inseparably as struggles over meanings as well as material conditions, that is, as cultural struggles…  Contemporary social movements in Latin America have a multiple character, as economic, social, political and cultural struggles.(Escobar 1992b)

She continues:

I would argue that the same could be said for the environmental struggles of the subaltern, regardless of their location. (13)

It works well, I think, to see the struggles of people in the colour and potentially the poor more broadly in the US in these terms, and I like the opportunities it opens up for broader alliances across race and nationality and particularly across national borders. I also think there is still a lot of work to be done here:

Activists are acutely aware that racism is manifest in every corner of society and that racist attitudes are deeply entrenched and institutionalized, but they have not developed a textured understanding of how racism interacts with various economic forces and hegemonic forms of cultural life. Instead, they have emphasized overt forms of discrimination… (17)

At the same time I think this is worth saying (and so eloquently):

It could be argued that for racially oppressed groups, racism is the primary axis of domination. All encounters of the oppressed–whether in the job market, at school, at home, or as a consumer–are experienced through racial subordination. Conversely, the racialized structure of the United States results in a benefit to whites. White privilege is so hegemonic that few whites are even cognizant of it. (18)

This stuff is… really hard, and I think people are all over the place in terms of how clearly they understand it and how well they are able to articulate it. It certainly shapes struggle though, and where communities are at. Pulido quotes Robert Bullard’s insight that African Americans really came to understand the importance of environmental issues only after linking them to civil rights and inequality.

The key to …  inclusion rest on linking environmental issues with the social justice concerns of minority communities… (Bullard 1993a)

I’m wondering for how many other issues this might be true, and what this means for white consciousness. But the point is well made:

This is critical to understanding the dominant discourse of subaltern environmental struggles in the United States. Racism and the struggle for equality are the entry point for marginalized groups in the United States; livelihood is the entry point for Third World communities. (19)

Positionality

I found Pulido’s thinking here so so useful in thinking about positionality in a robust and useful way, something I feel like I’ve been stumbling around my whole life with gradually increasing clarity:

I argue that the issue of positionality is most important in distinguishing mainstream and subaltern environmentalism. Activists of all sorts may be involved in the same environmental issue and even have the same political line, but mainstream and subaltern actors hold different positions within the socioeconomic structure that, in turn, frame their struggles differently. It is important to realize that positionality does not refer to a specific person or group per se but is rather a position that can be filled by any individual.

Contrary to mainstream efforts are the actions of subaltern environmental movement who, because of their position, are not in control of the economy and, in general, do not benefit from a continuation of the status quo. For these individuals, environmental issues are important in that they affect their livelihood or impact their health and physical well-being. Consequently, not only are they more physically and socially vulnerable, but they may require a change in the prevailing social relations tor each a satisfactory solution. Hence, on a very fundamental level, participants in subaltern struggles encounter environmental concerns not only from a different perspective, but also from a different structural position that may entail entirely different solutions and course of action. (28)

It emerged so clearly in both our organising and my own research the ways that these structural positions demand recognition in both strategy and goals in ways that people outside the struggle often do not understand:

Due to their position, the subaltern are not able to distance themselves from the political or economic consequences of either the problem or the proposed solutions. (29)

I think the key here is, does someone, do you benefit from the maintenance of the status quo? If you do, better said where you do because almost all of us have aspects of our identity that do not, then it is certain you’ll have some blindspots. It is nice to see it so clearly explained why there cannot just be one axis. But also the way Pulido grounds her work in economic relations, so she is also able to:

recognize how economic relations are mutually constituted by racism and issues of identity. A materialist analysis is crucial in identifying the structures and forces leading to the formation of subaltern environmental struggles. (31)

And highlights some of the key questions in looking at movement and thinking about resistance:

The task is to identify the ways in which racism, cultural oppression and identity interact with economic forces to create unique forms of domination and exploitation. (32)

Above all this book explores how important culture is to these positions — and the ability to find strength there:

For subaltern groups, quality-of-life issues are expressed within their economic projects. “People fight not only for more but for the possibility of defining a way of life expressive of deeply held values” (Plotke 1990, 93)

Given the development of white supremacy, these values are often key both to imagining alternatives, and to challenging the constantly promoted superiority of whiteness.

Racism must be challenged in the economic, social and cultural spheres.

Consequently, while the UFWOC’s [United Farm Worker of California] movement is a class conflict, it was also an antiracist struggle. It was antiracist in its efforts to counter the racialized division of labor, a racist class structure, as well as the larger racist ideology which rendered rural Chicanos as a despised population. (32)

Again this is part of identifying the multiple modes of oppression, of fighting on all fronts:

When poverty, racism, and culture come together to oppress people, they also interact to create unique forms of oppression that become the basis of resistance. Each of these factors must be countered individually and collectively, and one of the first steps in attempting to do so is the creation of an affirming, collective identity. (33)

Some axes, some definitions

Gender

I struggled a lot with why I have not focused on gender in my own work, and again Pulido nailed exactly why I did not and why I was uncomfortable with doing so artificially — in the struggles she studied gender was not articulated as an axis of domination and resistance, so she chose not to include gender as its own axis as it were. While ever present as an issue, Pulido writes:

Emphasizing this line of inquiry, however, would have take the analysis in a different direction, emphasizing unspoken forms of consciousness and interaction. … the fact remains that gender was not strategically used by the organizations in either understanding their oppression or mobilizing against it. For this reason I did not make it a separate category. Instead, it us interwoven throughout the discussion and reflects not only individual gender consciousness, but its intersection with other dynamics that create fully textured lives. (33)

Poverty

The definitions found here are great, especially in the ways that they build on — while also moving beyond — traditional Marxist understandings:

In short, there are many ways to be poor and economically marginal which are beyond the bounds of class. Understanding the specific conditions and relationships which give rise to poverty and inequality is essential in order to analyze them and ascertain the motivating force of struggles. (34)

Looking at Northern New Mexico, and its underdevelopment it becomes more clear just how this works, and how this is connected to space and place:

Because they have been relatively exempt from the homogenizing forces of modernity, such communities often carry the illusion of a traditional lifestyle…

It is imperative to understand the role of capital in the creation of places. (35)

This does not discount the importance of class, or the division of labour as an important analytical category in all advanced economies, but it explores the complexity of this as it intersects, or too often overlaps far too perfectly, with race. While there may be contradictions, too often

there may be an almost perfect fit, leading to a racialized division of labor. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than among California farmworkers. (37)

Like Harvey’s more flexible reading of Marx, Pulido emphsasis the relational aspect of class, an individual can occupy more than one class position. At the same time there is often a collective relationship rather than just an individual one.

Of course, neither poor people nor workers automatically constitute a class. Only when people unite to struggle on issues related to production, the appropriation of surplus value, and domination — only when they exist in opposition — do they then become a class. (39)

This raises the question of domination and power, and resistance to it.

Racism

Race is socially constructed. Of course. She uses Peter Jackson’s definition of racism (1987) which I hadn’t come across before (I don’t think?)

…a set of interrelated ideologies and practices that have grave material effects, severely effecting black people’s life chances and threatening their present and future well-being (1987, p 3)

But expanded beyond the Black/white binary of course. I like this definition very much. Another key:

In order to be effective, a racist ideology must become so pervasive and natural that it becomes hegemonic, and therefore, rarely questioned. (43)

Interesting too, how this becomes transferred to behaviours:

Although much of our racial discourse centers on the words “color” and “skin” — and although many people continue to be racist based solely on the idea of phenotype — skin color has essentially become a signifier for behavior considered objectionable by the dominant group. (44)

and both become tied up with neighbourhood and place, as described by Charles Mills.

Identity

As NSM literature demonstrates, the formation of a collective identity is a necessary first step in building a movement. People, regardless of how oppressed they might be, do not inevitably have a common identity. A shared identity must be cultivated and refined through interaction and struggle with other groups. (46) … while an affirmative identity will not necessarily lead to mobilization, it is, at the least, crucial to retaining one’s dignity in the face of oppression. (47)

The point is how to make it an affirming, positive identity, and as inclusive as possible…it would be good to think more about that and I think some people are. Strategic essentialism is part of this perhaps. For those who complain endlessly about identity politics:

Obviously, the creation of an affirmative identity can never be fully distinguished from resistance because the action and consciousness required to build such an identity, even if it simply allows one to live with a shred of dignity, is an act of resistance and an exercise of power in itself. It is the power of self that is the crucial first step in imagining the possibility of resistance or another reality. In my study of subaltern Chicano environmental struggles, ethnicity was the primary form of identification, and culture provided much of the raw material for that identity. (47)

The question, as I say, is how this is developed through struggle and conscientização so that it builds towards alliances, solidarity, broadening of movement.

Ethnicity

Quotes Aldrich, Carter, Hone and McEvoy (48):

Ethnicity is the identity which members of the group place upon themselves, race is a label foisted on to them by non-members… While racial identity may be a crippling disability, ethnicity acts as a positive force for the protection and promotions of group interests.

I never thought of it like this… I have so much more reading to do I know. I still think of it as defined on the immigration forms I helped people fill out long ago.

Anyway. To end. Without getting much into the struggles themselves, whose inspiration fills the bulk of the book and I loved and might find time to write more about.

Bringing it all together?

So how does Pulido connect political economy to these concepts, these axes of domination and subordination? She describes three cultural concepts that are helpful:

  1. Bauman’s concepts of differential and hierarchical culture (1973).  Anglo-American culture is regularly seen, described, taught as better than others, part of the necessary struggle is that subaltern cultures turn this on its head.
  2. Values, beliefs and material culture… different cultural forms exist in subaltern struggles which can become outward symbols and expressions of cultural differences and ways of proclaiming that there is an alternative. Examples are UFWOC’s use of La Virgen de Guadalupe, or Ganados anchoring their economic development project in wool and weaving.
  3. Praxis. She defines this in a unique way (to me, I am wonderig if this is how it is used in postcolonial studies) and I like how it brings together resistance, culture and material struggle:

Praxis is action. It is the social relations that actually create a culture. It is the stuff of which culture (and life) is made. Praxis usually refers to practices of which people are not overtly conscious but which appear to be the natural way of doing things. An illustration of praxis is how people organize their family life. Praxis is critical to understanding domination, mobilization and resistance. … In order for a movement to be successful, it must begin where people are. It must begin with the familiar and everyday. One reason that both of these case studies were successful was the emphasis on praxis, which allowed people to feel comfortable in new experiences and situations. (55)

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