Tag Archives: class

Women in Grassroots Movements: Temma Kaplan

Temma Kaplan Crazy for DemocracyI loved the stories in Temma Kaplan’s Crazy for Democracy, the prominence it gives some incredible women and their struggles, with extensive quotes presenting their hard-won experience and knowledge in their own words. I love that. Not enough is written about the role of women in grassroots movements, much less about women in the larger discourses around democracy.

We need more of that, especially now.

At the same time, I often felt unsure of the framing, drawing as it does on Weber. I need to think more about what Weber has to contribute to current struggles of working class women and women of colour in the US and Africa, and I confess Kaplan’s arguments weren’t quite enough to swing me onside.

Though widely used, the term grassroots does not have a commonly recognized meaning. Grassroots generally implies being widespread and common, in the sense of being universal. The term also suggests being outside the control of any state, church, union, or political party. To the women claiming its provenance, being from the grassroots generally means being free from any constraining political affiliations and being responsible to no authority except their own group. (2)

I like the women’s use of grassroots. I am still puzzling through the many varied webs of accountability we sit within, as women, as workers, as caretakers of the earth, and each and every additional layer. Especially given the fluidity of things like gender. I am wondering how our ‘grassroots’ label overlaps or potentially constrains such understandings. I would have loved more discussion of this.

Kaplan instead draws on Weber’s theorisations of charisma to look at what about certain individuals supported their leadership roles in movement. I know there is a lot written about this framing, Aldon Morris talks a little about this, but I too see it as a not-necessarily central factor to movement, and the more central it is, often the more problematic the idea of movement becomes. So all of Weber’s language bothers me a little, and at the same time I am curious to read this again.

Though three of the six women focused on here are deeply religious, their charisma lies not in their religion but in their commitment to promoting new ethical principles as the basis for democracy… In Weberian terms, these women are prophets…Such women, with their strong personalities, abilities to pitch in, and high morale, gather together people with different backgrounds, areas of expertise, and status, helping create egalitarian movements. (4)

See, the term ‘prophet’? It doesn’t really work for me.

Kaplan also presents an idea of ‘female consciousness’ — something else that I remain conflicted about. But undoubtedly we are socialised into gender roles and those roles help define our experience, our passions, our causes. Women have been made responsible for our survival — too often left as the conscience, the single mother, the caretaker of the home.

certain women, emphasising roles they accept as wives and mothers, also demand the freedom to act as they think their obligations entail. Women in many societies and historical periods learn from youth that they will be responsible as mothers for providing food, clothing, housing, and health care for their families. When toxic pollution or expulsion from their homes threatens their communities, certain women will take action according to their female consciousness, confronting authorities to preserve life. Far from being a biological trait, female consciousness develops from cultural experiences of helping families and communities survive. (6-7)

There is something here, just as there is in valuing the theory implicit in people’s actions…

Such activists draw on an implicit theory of human rights, seeking to make human health a corollary of justice, deriving it s power from commonsense notions of human need rather than codified laws. (7)

But of course, as a good Freirean, I do think our reality, our strategy and our action needs to be collectively named, put into words, owned.

On to the campaigns themselves, and the awesome women who helped give them direction:

Love Canal

Americans like to believe in the good intentions of their government, and they frequently consider the absence of politics to constitute an ideal state of being. Hardly a person from Love Canal doesn’t wish she could turn back the clock and forget what she knows about the government. (16)

I think as an organizer I am automatically critical of anyone uncritical of such words. Not that I haven’t felt them, or that they are not common or that we should deny such feelings. But again as a popular educator or critical thinker… to stay in this place looking backwards? It speaks to a process of conscientisation unhealthily blocked. The same is true for seeing distinctions rather than solidarity in this kind of way:

In fact, what differentiated the women of the Love Canal Homeowners Association from other protesters was their self-presentation as traditional mothers trying to do their job. “Radicals and students carry signs, but not average housewives. Housewives have to care for their children and their homes,” Lois Gibbs recalled later.  (23)

Comedy and appearing in the role of victim allowed the homeowners to challenge authority and gain media support… Had the women been feminists, they could have undercut their demands to be treated as full citizens by such actions. But the homeowners were desperate to save their community from disaster; they were willing to compromise their own dignity to survive. (30)

There is an awful lot implied about just who ‘feminists’ are here, a total rejection of the idea and the term, rather than a redefinition along the lines of what women like Angela Davis, bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins envision. This is not to demand that women themselves self-define in this way. My discomfort lies with the fact that this is stated and then left, when it could be opened up in a different way, could acknowledge debate, could think about how these constructions might constrain us just as much as certain understandings of feminism do.

The way women themselves do this:

Women engaged in struggles for environmental justice are often viewed as oddities. they are told that they are just hysterical housewives or crazy feminists. Or that they just aren’t ladies. “Ladies don’t take on an issue,” Cora Tucker, a community activist from Virginia explains. “I don’t know if ‘lady’ is a compliment or not. I don’t really like to be called a lady because my momma used to tell me that a lady was a woman who didn’t know which way was up….” (44)

Fighting Toxic Soil Dumping

Going on to fighting toxic soil dumping in Afton, North Carolina this statement… I’m glad it’s in here, I like this reflexivity, but it is also the kind of reaction that really gets to me:

Thirty years ago, more naive and purist, I’d been shocked by the presence of television sets in the shacks of even the most abject sharecroppers in Mississippi. (48)

Still. There are so many stories here of resistance. On Dollie Burwell’s mother:

Required to enter by the rear door, Dollie’s mother went into the back with her coat on, took the broom from the closet, backed out the door, walked around to the front, swept, and entered through the main door every day before taking off her coat and starting to work in earnest. (50)

One of my favourite stories.

On fear, and the folks who never were part of the mass movement that rocked the South:

“Most of the folks had not even been involved in the integration,” remembers Dollie. “Too afraid.” (54)

Still, I am wondering about these definitions of ‘activists’, which seem as unchallenged as ‘feminists’:

At the time of the public meeting in January 1979, neither Ken nor Deborah had ever engaged in any political activities…They were most definitely not political activists looking for a cause. (56)

Because for all Dollie Burwell was a local, ‘homegrown’ leader, she was still connected to the United Church of Christ and the SCLC, helped bring in Floyd McKissick, once head of CORE and enormously influential and very well known. The power of movement, seems to me, lies in connecting people and organisation around issues that matter to people.

Another great quote that seems to make this point from Cora Tucker again, as a speaker at the (so very famous) Women and Toxic Organizing Conference of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, November 1987:

People don’t get all the connections. They say the environment is over here, the civil rights groups is over there, the women’s group is over there, and the other groups are here. Actually all of them are one group, and the issues we fight become null and void if we have no clean water to drink, no clean air to breathe and nothing to eat. (69)

Again we return to themes of connection, conversation, collective naming and working towards change — done as well by ‘homemaker citizens’ as anyone else:

Conversation creates and enhances citizenship as people learn to stand up for their rights by comparing notes about what is going on, confronting authorities, and working toward a solution, gaining confidence about perceptions they might otherwise think are awry. Dollie Burwell does not separate efforts to get people to vote from attempts to get them to stand up for their right to a clean and safe environment. For her, as for political scientist Mary Dietz, democracy is “the form of politics that brings people together as citizens.” (74)

The redefinitions of what we are fighting for that emerges from this:

As far as these particular activists are concerned, justice is not limited to rights under the law, but to what they think the law was designed to protect: the well-being of citizens and their access to the social resources necessary to sustain their lives. According to Lois Gibbs, “Justice is about choice; it is the goal and democracy is the process.” (75)

The fact that you don’t have to call it by a specialised term to actually be doing it. Organising is a great deal of common sense working to change things — not to say that there aren’t things to be learned, experiences to build on.

Gibbs recalls that when she began at Love Canal she “didn’t know that what I was doing was called ‘organizing.’ We didn’t use that term. We called it talking to people, getting them together, reaching a decision and taking action–for the survival of our children and ourselves.” (77)

Again, in the words of Lois Gibbs:

“A trained, professional organizer will let people fail, if by failing they learn. A professional organizer places a higher value on building long-term, deep-seated community power, and sometimes losing a fight (but learning from it) is a way to build this power . . . The organizer would rather build the group than win the issue.” (83)

I like that ideal. I think there is a big tension here between winning and inspiring people in that way, and letting people learn and fail. It’s not a tension whose resolution always goes this direction, and it is not always the organiser who can choose. I wanted more of these tensions, organisational tensions, movement tensions…

A final reminder of just how much work is actually happening that folks never hear about, as Kaplan notes that smaller victories led locally

seldom get reported. This makes traditional black organizations such as the Southern California Christian Leadership Conference, CORE, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Commission on Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ seem less active than they are. (98)


From US environmental justice movements, Kaplan moves into the descriptions of the Crossroads movement, the struggles of Regina Ntongana. Somehow this really felt as though it were where the book came into its own, but perhaps it is because I am so unfamiliar with these struggles, whereas Love Canal and Afton are well studied (there are mentions of them in many an Environmental Justice reader, for example, as foundational movements).

The growth of the ‘informal’ Crossroads settlement was amazing — from 20 shacks in February 1975 to about 4,000 in April 1978. Kaplan writes:

twenty thousand inhabitants in three thousand handmade dwellings consumed an area of approximately two square miles in which only one street, the Street of Mice (Mpuku), had a name. (133)

Again we see women organising themselves, but getting help from established organisations who had done similar things and were thus able to connect them up to knowledge, support and solidarity. Kaplan doesn’t use this language or investigate more deeply into this because clearly her focus is on emerging organisation, but to me it underlines the importance of what Aldon Morris called movement halfway houses.  In this case, Crossroads found  help from the Black Sash, which originated as the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League in 1955. In seeking help they also radicalised Black Sash — up to that  point the organisation had only defended people legally occupying land, to help get their rights. In supporting Crossroads, the women there succeeded in moving the organisation into a whole new area supporting squatters win rights to land, and thus challenging the system more broadly. Definitely a very good example of the power of women, of informal organisation, but also the importance of support.

They built three schools, demolished and rebuilt in turn. Damn.

The women of Crossroads continued to build relationships and seek institutional support on their own terms — and again, the ways in which they did this and managed these power relationships are so interesting to me but this is much more focused on the simple facts of doing it — they brought in Quakers to teach, contacted the Institute of Race Relations, the Urban Problems Research Unit, the Provincial Ecumenical Council, the Anglican Church.

They used plays and role playing much along the lines of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed — though Kaplan never uses that term. I was just curious if some of this was inspired by outside, though again it is one of those radical traditions that seems organic to many cultures.

The point is well made that in South Africa, the women of the Crossroads settlement were considered ‘Surplus People’. There is a world to be unpacked there.

I am fascinated, too, by Regina Ntongana’s description of leadership:

the grassroots are like a bundle of clothing, all in different colors. What gives them shape is the wire over which they dry. The clothesline is the leader. (157)

There is more on the naming of things, the comparison of social justice as the term of struggle in the US, whereas social citizenship was the term in South Africa is quite interesting. I am not sure all of the comparisons quite worked.

But this made me laugh out loud:

When I asked Ma if she was a feminist, since she works primarily with women and has suffered some of the worst indignities male leaders can inflict, she stopped for a moment. Then she looked up at me and said, deliberately: “I am a Christian, and therefore I believe God has a reason for everything.” Then she hesitated, waited a few beats, and added: “He must have had some reason for creating men.” (177)


All of this framing was interesting, and provoked a number of further questions in me… she identifies a ‘collective action’ school — and includes Aldon Morris, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly (I still haven’t read Tilly, shocking) in that… That surprised me a little I suppose, I see them as being quite different from each other. I also wish this framing of ‘social movement studies’ could open up more along the lines of what Peet and Watts lay out in Liberation Ecologies. But in this comaprison, Kaplan writes of the three figures named that they study:

what has historically galvanized people to take action in pursuit of collective interests. Primarily concerned with the growing sophistication of the processes by which ordinary people confront those in power, shape their own goals, and–most important–form complex organizations to express their wishes…’ (181)

her critique:

collective action theorists frequently view loose associations merely as tendencies guiding potential insurgents toward one organization rather than another. Networks then become means to certain organizational ends rather than strong webs connecting politically vital local groups…leaders and key events directed by highly visible organizations assume greater significance than do processes by which large numbers of people resist oppression and develop programs for transforming society. (181-182)

She instead argues these are more based around informality, remaining networks and that as such are as key to social change:

What is new is that instead of disappearing after initial grievances have been aired, or instead of being absorbed into larger, more complicated, hierarchical organizations, the new democratic organizations of women have been able to sustain themselves as networks over long periods of time and over great geographical distances. (183)

I can’t help but feel after reading it, that both are true. That networks always exist, but in her own account, organisations did support these beginning networks in rather vital ways at key points. It’s tricky because people also join and drop out of organisations, move around. Someone like Ella Baker shows how muddy this ground might be. She was part of a vast network of contacts, — institutional, familial, informal — that she was able to draw on in different ways over a span of decades. That’s who she was. Her effectiveness and brilliance as an organiser who remained almost always out of the limelight came in being part of both personal networks and a member of the SCLC, SCEF and others.  Was she this figure found here of ‘feminist’ or ‘professional activist looking for a cause’?

Anyway, lots to think about, and undoubtedly true that networks — particularly women’s networks — have rarely been looked at or given anything near the serious study they deserve in movement. And then there is always the fact that is a rare book full of amazing women.

[Kaplan, Temma (1997) Crazy for Democracy: women in grassroots movements. New York: Routledge.]










Georges Perec on the Uninhabitable

Georges Perec Species of SpaceI just finished Georges Perec, Species of Space and Other Pieces, it is wonderful. What struck me most forcibly was this list he gives of the uninhabitable, as it has struck so many. It is one of the most moving things I have ever read, without quite being able to put my finger on why. It captures somehow capital’s destruction of the earth, its destruction of urban spaces and housing, its carceral geographies. The madness of this world we have somehow created for ourselves. It invokes the misshapen forms that inhabiting the uninhabitable has produced, but in their absence. All this in a list.

I have thus set it apart. To read. To re-read. To return to.

The Uninhabitable

The uninhabitable: Seas used as a dump, coastlines bristling with barbed wire, earth bare of vegetation, mass graves, piles of carcasses, boggy rivers, towns that smell bad

The uninhabitable: The architecture of contempt or display, the vainglorious mediocrity of tower blocks, thousands of rabbit hutches piled one above the other, the cutprice ostentation of company headquarters

The uninhabitable: the skimped, the airless, the small, the mean, the shrunken, the very precisely calculated

The uninhabitable: the confined, the out-of-bounds, the encaged, the bolted, walls jagged with broken glass, judas windows, reinforced doors

The uninhabitable: shanty towns, townships

The hostile, the grey, the anonymous, the ugly, the corridors of the Metro, public baths, hangars, car parks, marshalling yards, ticket windows, hotel bedrooms

factories, barracks, prisons, asylums, old people’s homes, lycees, law courts, school playgrounds



Kevin Lynch on Los Angeles

Kevin Lynch -- The Image of the CityI love that LA is one of the case studies in Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (see his broader arguments in parts 1 and 2). It was almost disconcerting realising that this was written in 1960, when LA was such a different place. Bunker Hill still there, Pershing Square still a proper landscaped square not a barely functional ugly unwelcoming space covering a parking lot. But this is also a city I know very well through personal experience and study, so could bring both to bear, and this offered a good perspective on the limitations of the book.

This description of (white, professional) views of downtown are also startling:

The general image is remarkable for its emptiness east of Main or Los Angeles Streets, and south of 7th Street, except for the extension of the repeating grid. The central area is set in a vacuum. This L-shaped center is liberally sprinkled with remembered landmarks, chief of them being the Statler and Biltmore Hotels… But only two landmarks were described in any concrete detail: the ugly, black and gold Richfield Building and the pyramided top of the City Hall (35).

Wow — first, city hall makes sense but the Statler Hotel? Not a landmark I would have given, and one now torn down (for the story, see the great blog from Paradise Leased).


Second, the Richfield Building ugly? I confess I didn’t actually know this as the Richfield Building, but I did know the building itself and quite love it:

Richfield Building, Los Angeles

Third…this is such a white view of downtown LA — as Lynch himself shows later. So to look at the white map of downtown LA:

Kevin Lynch Los Angeles

Kevin Lynch Los Angeles from interviews

In describing the areas, Lynch writes:

Bunker Hill is not as strong an image, despite its historical connotations, and quite a few felt that it was “not in the downtown area.” Indeed, it is surprising how the core, in bending around this major topographic feature, has succeeded in visually burying it (36).

I suppose that made it much easier for them to tear it down, that and the way it was full of poor people and people of color, which as later findings on LA seem to show means such areas are erased from mental maps of those in power. I am still mourning Bunker Hill.

Kevin Lynch Bunker Hill

Then there is the shock of Pershing Square being a decent public space….though given his list of its uses, it’s very clear why the city council should have destroyed it.

Pershing Square is consistently the strongest element of all: an exotically landscaped open space in the heart of downtown, reinforced by its use as an outdoor political forum, camp meeting, and old people’s rest. (36-37)

Pershing Square LA

So now we get to why I should bring race into things (if you were not already on board with that and wondering):

Broadway was perhaps the only path which was unmistakable for all…Although conceded to be the core, if anything is, yet Broadway was not a shopping area for most of these middle-class persons. Its walks are crowded with the ethnic minorities and lower-income groups who living quarters ring the central section. the subjects interviewed regarded this linear core as an alien one, looking at it with varying degrees of avoidance, curiosity, or fear. They were quick to describe the status differences between the Broadway crowds, and those to be seen on 7th Street, which, if not elite, is at least a middle-class shopping street. (38)

Yes, Lynch did, in fact, only interview professional white folks working in the downtown core. It is the ‘ethnic minorities’ and ‘lower-income groups’ whose living quarters form the ’emptiness’ of the white maps, their streets the ‘no-go’ areas. This is a vision of the ‘other’ with a vengeance, the alien. It is not one that is taken up or questioned. It is just left there. Broadway is highlighted as a landmark mostly because it was the corridor for street cars rather than buses — streetcars! The destruction of public transportation networks and fear generated through racism…a pretty good explanation of what happened to LA.

What is curious, though, is that even for these white respondents fearful of Broadway, Olvera Street was special. That surprised me, but perhaps its mixture of genuine history and culture with a facade of touristy Mexican-ness rendered it palatable. Lynch writes of the courtyard at its South end:

Not only is this small spot visually very distinct, but it is the only true historical anchor-point in the city and seems to generate a fierce attachment (39).


He continues:

When asked to describe or symbolize the city as a whole, the subjects used certain standard words: “spread-out,” “spacious,” “formless,” “without centers.” Los Angeles seemed to be hard to envision or conceptualize as a whole. An endless spread, which may carry pleasant connotations of space around the dwellings, or overtones of weariness and disorientation, was the common image. Said one subject: “It’s as if you were going somewhere for a long time, and when you got there you discovered there was nothing there, after all. (40-41)

This note on trying to find something to hold on to is interesting.

Another frequent theme was that of relative age. Perhaps because so much of the environment is new or changing, there was evidence of widespread, almost pathological, attachment to anything that had survived the upheaval.

Yet they kept tearing things down. Bunker Hill was just about to go…Another thing I am so sad I never saw:

In Los Angeles, on 7th Street at the corner of Flower Street, is an old, two-story gray wooden building, set back some ten feet from the building line, containing a few minor shops. This took the attention and fancy of a surprising number of people. One even anthropomorphized it as the “little gray lady.” (81)

Kevin Lynch - The Grey Lady

Lynch continues:

In Los Angeles there is an impression that the fluidity of the environment and absence of physical elements which anchor to the past are exciting and disturbing. Many descriptions of the scene by established residents, young or old, were accompanied by ghosts of what used to be there. Changes, such as those wrought by the freeway system, have left scars on the mental image. (45)

LA as a city of ghosts.

In looking at the specifics of how the city space works, Lynch writes:

…more abrupt directional shifts may enhance visual clarity by limiting the spatial corridor… one was prevented from sensing the vacuum in which central Los Angeles is placed by the grid shifts which close off the outward view. (56)

Once again, let us remember that the ‘vacuum’ consists of the homes and neighbourhoods of poor people and people of colour. Maybe I shouldn’t be, yet I remain astonished at the lack of self-reflexivity in these statements. The degree to which the book and this kind of scholarship is rendered shoddy by a lack of questioning such constructions, and the reality that as part of a privileged group, Lynch is completely unable to see, much less understand, how other groups move through and understand the city he is studying. To end with perhaps one of the most insightful points Lynch makes (without quite realising it I think):

The psychological distance between two localities may be much greater, or more difficult to surmount, than mere physical separation seems to warrant. (85)

More on building social spaces…

and even more…








Lyn Lofland on Antiurbanism

lyn-lofland-public-realmSo I do believe that this will be blog three of four (see one and two), combining Lofland’s descriptions of antiurban scholarship and feeling as found in  The Public Realm. I recognised more of the figures from these chapters, but she looks at them in interesting ways.

First, the ways that this sentiment emerges on both left and right — for example from David Harvey (1973) writing that:

the ultimate villain for the Left is the economic system and its operation, cities per se … become the “intervening villains” as in David Harvey’s assertion that “cities…are founded upon the exploitation of the many by the few. An urbanism founded upon exploitation is a legacy of history. A genuinely humanizing urbanism has yet to be brought into being.” (1973: 314) (111)

I never think of Harvey in this way really, but of course it makes sense that for him the city is the locus of exploitation. From the right it is more clearcut:

From the point of view of the Right, cities are simply blamed in a relatively straightforward manner … for the failings that might otherwise be attributed to the economic system. Thus the existence of a black underclass, poverty in general, and crime are all defined as urban problems and, as such, not worth “throwing money at.” (111)

She looks at huge amount of literature n the negative impacts of high-density living — things it will be good to follow up for the next piece I’m thinking of writing — Baldassare (1983), Cholding (1978) and Freedman (1975) give summations of these, though dated. Other scholars, I think she is thinking in particular of many of teh social movement scholarship, trace the city’s negative psychological impacts. For them the city is often seen as a variable causing protest, conflict and violence (and these are all greatly conflated and all bad). This was challenged by Tilly. Who I still haven’t read but need to.

Lofland departs from all this to look at what she believes to be the true source of antiurban feeling:

I do not believe we despise the city of any of these oft-mentioned reason. Rather, I would like to offer the hypothesis that we despise the city largely because it is the only settlement form that has a public realm. (113)

This is because we judge the public realm with the moral standards of the parochial and private realms. Interesting. Do we? Do I? Have I been until now?

Lofland starts with what she calls the ‘Direct Assaults’ or the kinds of open attacks that have been made on the public realm, arranging them thematically:

The Presence of the Unholy and the Unwashed (116) — Based on Victorian ideas of contamination (particularly in encouraging women to stay home), views of poverty, homelessness. God knows this is still far too alive today.

Mixing the unmixable (118) — this is a place where different categories of people mix together (oh no!), this is fear is broader than, but includes the fear of, the most poor. She doesn’t talk much about race, but this clearly includes the ‘Other’. She describes:

The idea that there is a social territory in which various types or categories of people whom a deity, nature, tradition, etc., had intended to remain forever separate are allowed to mingle provides the occasion for much agonized hand-wringing… (119)

The Sacrilegious Frivolity of Uncontrolled Play: (121) I rather love this one, as will situationists and performance artists everywhere.

In the public realm, the argument goes, the unquestioned virtues of sobriety, industry, rationality, diligence, and so forth are not only challenged, they are discarded. (121)

Political Anarchy: Oh yes…

… it will seem particularly attractive as a site for politics to those who cannot command significant private space… the unmonied — the outcasts, the dangerous classes, the unworthy poor, the mob, the unwashed masses, the proletariat, the underclass — in short, to all those urban folks who … inspire fear in the hearts of authorities everywhere. (124)

Then there are the ‘Indirect Assaults’,  where the target is another issue, but the public realm gets drawn in. ‘Preserving the Gentler Sex’ (128) and the appropriate conduct of women, ‘Leading Men Not Into Temptation’ (129) and the Victorian anti-prostitution movement, ‘Prohibiting Demon Rum’ (130) and the temperance movements, ‘Protecting Innocent Children and Corruptible Youth’ (131) are the examples she gives. It is clear that the city has been a something of a villain in all of those movements, this is making me remember Deborah Epstein Nord’s Walking the Victorian Streets among other works …

The focus to this point has been on larger antiurban social movements, in the next chapter, however, Lofland moves to individual feeling and the rise of value give to private space.

In trying to understand this, she distinguishes privatism from privatization as the individual preference for private space. This shift is made possible by the changing technological innovations that have allowed a withdrawal from the public realm (and also the parochial realm) in ways impossible for all but the very wealthiest before — cars, a weekly shop at the grocery store rather than regular stops at  the local market, entertainment through radio and television to be enjoyed in the home, all of the things that work to create ‘cocoons of privacy’ (145). She also notes that this emerges from a:

social-psychological condition… the extremely high value modern Western humans in general, but Americans in particular, seem to place on intimate (read, “authentic”) relationships. … Richard Sennett has long argued not only that there is such a preference but that it leads to a dismissal of more impersonal public–and even parochial–relationships… (145)

This hierarchization of relationships — something that so fascinates me because I think I have been just as guilty without thinking about it — is key in making growing privatism possible. Lofland argues that it connects to consistent feelings of fear and loathing of streets and the way they are filled with strangers — and that this is what is driving the many attempts to control public space so visible in both our histories and in our present. While difficult to prove how this connection works, Lofland argues that there seems to be something connecting anti-urbanism and privatism, the built environment and people’s feelings.

This leads into a discussing of ‘Control by Design’ or the way architecture is used to control (or destroy) the public realm —  a lot of work has been done on this since she was writing, I think, but this is still so insightful, drawing on the already existing  wealth in literature (as of 1998) about how to control people and access to public spaces — particularly the poor and the ‘other’. Lofland describes 4 conditions that she believes must be met before

…genuine control of the public realm can be accomplished architecturally: First, a specific set of political, economic, and legal arrangements must be in place and accompanied by, second, cultural attitudes that support, third, a large number of construction projects that are, fourth, large in scale. (193)

All of these brought together could be able to control or purify the public realm. A lot. But they have come together in the dream of what Lofland calls the “private city” as described by Le Corbusier, visible in Brasilia, or the Barbican. Present in the massive building of suburbs in the US. Why did I never encounter this before in literature of the suburbs? She looks at the five critical deign elements:

Megamononeighborhoods (200) – specialized and segregated land use, sprawling suburbs that may have public spaces in them, but Lofland notes few qualify as public realm. Strangers have no reason to go there, and are actively discouraged

Autoresidences (201) – characteristic of the megamononeighborhood.

…the peculiar fact that a significant proportion of houses built since 1945 have as their dominant feature the prominence of the garage.

Autostreets (201) – made for cars, discourage walking, cycling

Antiparks (203) – the non-residential megamononeighborhood — industrial parks, business parks etc, landscapes without people

Megastructures (204) – interiors full of what Lofland calls counter-locales for control of people using the space, but in the larger city they work to ‘reduce, destroy or inhibit, the creation of street life outside its walls.’ (204)

Lofland uses this image — Sketch of ‘Radiant City’ from Le Corbusier (1929) to illustrate exactly what she means. I have always found Le Corbusier chilling…


Lofland brings more concepts to the fore — what she calls ‘sanitary design’ and the counterlocale. Earlier she defined locales as bounded nonprivate space where people were likely not to know each other. I love her definition of counterlocale (though more terminology always makes me worry):

locales to which both entry and behavior are monitored and controlled so as to reduce the possibility for discomforting, annoying, or threatening interactions. … counterlocales are “purified” or “sanitized” locales. (209)

This is such a familiar kind of space. She continues

Again, it took the massive postwar building program in the United States to transform a weak and insignificant strategy for taming the public realm into a colossus. (209)

She then defines four principal mechanisms to ‘rehabilitate’ spaces (for evil), or make them counterlocales:

Privatization. Growth of megastructures has ensured ‘what was once permeable has become impermeable. Once inside the megastructure, the individual is fully in privately owned space…’ (210-211)

Shadow Privatization. (211) Through public-private partnerships, where public space given under some level of private control, or in return for some kind of subsidy, private spaces are opened to some degree to the public. BIDs an example of the first, privately owned plazas made semi-public an example of the second. Some of these made deliberately uninviting to discourage use.

The “Panopticon” Approach. The use of surveillance.

The “Hideaway” Approach. (214) Where ‘public’ plazas are tucked away and hidden, like in LA above the main streets, surrounded by imposing high rise offices.

Then there is camouflaged control — Disneyland kind of spaces, mall spaces.

All so familiar. All things I have studied, but wish I had found this earlier, as it is so helpful thinking about this historical context and the difference between public realm and public space, as well the role (and fear) of strangers.

To end, something that surprised me though it shouldn’t have, her discussion of just how many sociologists have fought the idea that space has any impact on society. Very curious indeed to me, but a wealth of citations. I think ‘the spatial turn’ has changed all that, but it seems worth remembering.

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Lyn Lofland: Relationships with and within the public realm

lyn-lofland-public-realmThe second among a series of posts on Lyn Lofland’s The Public Realm (part 1 is here) — packed so full of food for thought I don’t even know how many courses this meal will be. I just don’t know where I have been for this ongoing sociological discussion on how we inhabit public spaces. Maybe the room next door. Maybe the wrong side of the tracks. So you’ll forgive me if I catch up a bit through Lofland’s work…

We return to the nature of our interactions in human space, and Lofland’s rebuttal of  what she calls the ‘stimulus overload’ arguments of Simmel (read about those here) and Wirth (coming soon). We return to her favourite quartet of Gregory Stone, Jane Jacobs, Erving Goffman and William Whyte, who countered these arguments by showing the rich interactional life happening in cities. Lofland argues:

… public realm interaction is patterned because, far from “shutting down,” persons in urban space appear to be paying careful attention to what I shall here conceive of as “principles of stranger interaction.” (27)

She gives five such principles, which I have enjoyed pondering as I move about public spaces (and realms):

(1) cooperative motility — ‘strangers work together to traverse space without incident…’ (29) The dance noted by Jacobs. ‘Most of the time our movement through the public realm is simply uneventful, and it is so because humans are cooperating with one another to make it so.’

(2) civil inattention

There is, to me, a mightily perceptive quote from Erving Goffman on race, class, age, disability as exceptions to civil inattention…

for example, the “hate stare” that a Southern white sometimes gratuitously gives to Negroes walking past him. It is also possible for one person to treat others as if they were not there at all, as objects not worthy of a glance, let alone close scrutiny… Here we have “nonperson” treatment, in may be seen in our society in the way we sometime treat children, servants, Negroes and mental patients. Currently in our society, this kind of treatment is to be contrasted with the kind generally felt to be more proper in most situations, which will here be called “civil inattention.” (1963a, p29)

Lofland continues:

Civil inattention suggests that when humans in the public realm appear to ignore one another, they do so not out of psychological distress but out of a ritual regard, and their response is not the asocial one of “shut down” but the fully social one of politeness. (30)

This distinction between civil inattention and dismissal is such an important one, such a slippery one, it’s something I want to come back to.

(3) audience role prominence

An interesting quote of Suzanne and Henry Lennard’s Public Life in Urban Spaces:

Successful public places accentuate the dramatic qualities of personal and family life. They make visible certain tragic, comic and tender aspects of relationships among friends, neighbors, relatives or lovers. They also provide settings for a gamut of human activities. (1984:21-22, p 31)

(4) restrained helpfulness

…requests for mundane assistance and positive responses to those requests are the mundane “stuff” of everyday stranger encounters — so unremarkable that in many studies they are not even mentioned or mentioned only in passing. (32)

(5) civility toward diversity

One of the more interesting aspects of this principle is that it seems to excite remark only in its breach…Only the very few instances of observed incivility made it into my notes.

Interesting how the idea of realms impacts this:

Where the boundaries between the three realms are unclear or disputed or, even more simply, at border points between them, ruptures in the moral order are not only possible but are, under some conditions, probable. (33)

So… Unlike Wirth or Simmel, Lofland writes

Far from being a given, the absence of verbal or visual exchanges must be achieved. In fact and paradoxically, privacy, disattention, and avoidance can only be accomplished by means of principles-guided social interaction. (34)

This provides a strong disincentive for interaction — in polite and meaningful ways that help us all get through the urban tangle every day. What then provides incentive for the opposite in a positive way? The kinds of things you might like to foster as a planner or designer of space?

Lofland lists a few things that ‘either nullify the principles or provide legitimate exceptions to them.’

open persons: individuals who because of subordinate (child, disabled) or occupational (policeman) status or because of situationally specific identities (fellow American in China) are seen as more available for an encounter than others.

open regions: locales (for example drinking establishments, residence lounges of hotels, city streets during carnival, some cafes) in which all the inhabitants are mutually accessible to each other

triangulation: a term introduced by William H. Whyte and defined by him as a “process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to each other as though they were not [strangers]” (39)

Dogs, children, art…those kinds of things. I remember that from his book.

This is perhaps even more interesting:

Finally, the public realm’s governing principles may be employed to express, to create, to re-create, to fabricate, or to refashion societal or regional or local systems of equality and inequality…. we need to understand that the principles themselves are instruments for communicating equality. To use them is to proffer to surrounding strangers the gift of what Goffman called “ritual deference.” (39)

She continues

In sum, to give other ritual deference via the principles implies that one understands them to possess a basic level of humanness… (40)

This means, of course, that the opposite is also true, ‘that their violation or misapplications are effective in perpetuating systems of inequality.‘ (40) This goes back to that distinction between civil inattention and either the hate stares or not giving people the respect of your attention. It is why I find this such an interesting thing to study and think about in terms of emancipatory practice both in planning and in everyday life…

To shift gears just a little though, the next chapter (The Relational Web in Public spaces: Persons, Places, Connections) contains a good summary of existing literature on the kinds of interactions taking place in public space (though it leaves aside the above question for the most part). Lofland writes:

As a social territory, the public realm is not merely the locus of rule-guided interactions, it is also the locus of a complex web of relationships. Some of these, of course, are created and have their anchorage in the private or parochial realms, as when lovers attend the theater of neighbours sit in the park. To understand what goes on in public realm space requires that we be sensitive to the presence, frequency, and spacial magnitude of such nonpublic relational forms. (51)

We need new vocabularies for relationship types, here are her suggestions:

Fleeting relationships: most representative in terms of sheer volume, of brief duration between strangers — “Can you tell me the time” etc. (53)

Routinized Relationships: often what sociologists refer to as secondary , she prefers routinized ‘because I want to emphasize the relatively standardized character of the interaction in such relationships — the interaction-as-learned-routine.’ (54) Regular customers at a McDonalds etc…

Both fleeting and routinized relationships are probably most fruitfully analyzed in terms of the interactions they produce. Viewed as relationships, they are too brief and/or too standardized to be of any sustained sociological interest. But both are capable of transformation… (55)

Quasi-primary relationships:

created by relatively brief encounters (a few minutes to several hours) between strangers or between those who are categorically known to one another. (55)

Chat between dog-owners for example.

Intimate-Secondary Relationships:

… unlike quasi-primary relationships, they are relatively long-lasting: running the gamut from from a duration of weeks or months to one of many years. Anyone who has done observations in public spaces…has most certainly encountered relationships of this sort, for example, among elderly persons who congregate in and enjoy encounters with the other customers of “downtown” restaurants… (56-57)

There exists a great relational fluidity — it is important to remember that these relationships are fluid, can move and change between between these forms, and not necessarily in a straightforward progression.

Lofland argues (and I have found this myself) that much sociological literature puts primary relationships before secondary, it makes the moral judgement that they are ‘best’. I think that is almost intuitive, at least for me as this makes me pause to examine my own understandings. Interestingly this has been challenged, and I think rightly. Lofland looks at Ray Oldenburg’s (1989) work on ‘the third place’ – “a generic designation for a great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of work and home.” She looks at Sennet’s The Uses of Disorder (1970), and The Fall of the Public Man (1977). All of course arguing that public places matter, these encounters matter and alongside deeper relationships they are important for how we relate to both society and place.

There is more in here as well around ‘place’ as opposed to ‘space’, building on Edward Relph (1976) and Yi-Fu Tuan (1977), Lofland writes:

Places are especially meaningful spaces, rich in associations and steeped in sentiment. (64)

For many, (see Firey (1945), Herbert Gans writing about the urban village, Marc Fried’s (1963) work on displaced) place was private or parochial space, but Relph and Yi-Fu Tuan have opened up this feeling of meaning as it is also applied to public realms.

‘Towards a language of Public Realm Space” works to connect some of these ideas to the built environment and space. It tries to find a way to better study and understand

person-to-place connection in its own right and not simply to subsume it as a by-product of human-to-human involvements. (65)

Lofland looks at three different connections in this effort:

Memorized Locales: …small pieces of the public realm that, because of events that happened and/ or because of some object (e.g. a statue) that resides within them, take on, for some set of person, the aura of “sacred places” (65)

This is not so much in a religious sense, as in the way it holds importance — for example a ‘gay monument’ in Amsterdam.

Familiarized Locales: Paths/Rounds/Ranges: …refers to locales that persons encounter or move through on a daily or nearly daily basis and with which they establish a familiar relationship … makes possible the repeated fleeting relationships that transform strangers into “familiar strangers” … but even in the absence of these human links, the physical objects that compose and are visible…can come, with repeated exposure, to seem like old friends. (66)

Hangouts and Home Territories:

This builds on Marvin Scott (1967), arguing they are

…areas where the regular participants have a relative freedom of behavior and a sense of intimacy and control over the area. (69)

These can be public spaces, so in any public space, there may be multiple kinds of use occurring from those occupying it as a home territory to complete strangers and everyone in between. Thus the same space in the same moment of time can have varying feelings of place to different people present.

And of course, all of this sits within a larger context of life and space. The possibilities for different kind of relational webs within spaces depends on larger frameworks — the very different relationships to public space that the medieval city dweller had for example, but also the differences in relationship to space that might depend on other factors such as race or nationality.

There is just so much to think about here, and I am not yet done.


[Lofland, Lyn H. (1998) The Public Realm: Exploring the City’s Quintessential Social Territory. New York: Aldine de Gruyter)

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Writing Cities: Oath of Fealty and right-wing utopian enclaves

oath-of-fealty-niven-pournelleOath of Fealty is one of the more vile and viciously right wing novels I’ve read, though to be fair I haven’t read many of them at all. But this is something like Ayn Rand – wig askew and on her 13th pink gin fizz – going off on a paranoid scree about the muggers and rapists who are all out to kill her. Because she’s so rich and talented and beautiful and they just can’t handle that so she’s bought 10 attack dogs and built a concrete bunker.

It’s all about taking the gated community to the next level, making it a maze of about a cubic square mile with about a quarter of a million people. It towers like a monstrous black cube in an area essentially burned down by its own residents – I would guess Watts or Compton. It’s powered by hydrogen, fed through pipes from ‘a complex of nuclear breeder plants in Mexico’.

Ah, the outsourcing of risk and contaminants.

It calls itself Todos Santos – All Saints – why do white people in the Southwest always call their high-end real estate developments nice things in Spanish? A patronising nod to the people they stole the land from? Easier to pronounce than indigenous phrases for ‘Pretty View’ and ‘Mountain Hills’? But the authors aren’t being entirely metaphorical in calling the residents saints. Apparently you can pick them out of a crowd of poor old Angelinos, they are the shiny beautiful people who move in a certain way, speak in a certain way. They are a new kind of person.


I thought at first this rather chilling slightly fascist slogan must be ironic or a nod to the dangers this kind of project could raise. But no. These really are a ‘better kind’ of people, helped by those who commit suicide or get themselves killed. They like this slogan, paint it on walls, put it on stickers and huge banners like a big F-you to L.A.

The utopia?

We’re running a civilization, something new in this world, and don’t bother to tell me how small it is. It’s a civilization. The first one in a long time where people can feel safe’ (18).

Constantly watched, constantly surveilled and monitored. But the many guards are their friends. They don’t arrest people for being too drunk the way the terrible LAPD does, they walk you home. What is better than being safe after all? We know that the real danger is from criminal poor people who are all on the outside, hopped up to their eyeballs on drugs and trying to shoot down helicopters.

Todos Santos is of course trying to be completely separate from Los Angeles – the crime, the pollution, the drugs, the poor people. There’s a lot of anger in this book about how the government forces all of us to become accountants to pay our taxes, and the pain of collecting receipts and things. A whole lot of anger. Familiar tea party sort of anger. Trump kind of anger. Taxes in Todos Santos don’t go to welfare and they are part of your mortgage payment to the company – kindly saving you from wasting any thought on them at all. It’s a bit feudal, yeah, but they had some good ideas back then. Oath of Fealty rendered, everything else taken care of. Awesome. Of course, I can’t quite understand how this fits with America, Land of the Free in their heads, or their hatred of big government…I mean, my opinion is that these fit together because the residents of Todos Santos don’t see poor people, particularly poor Black and Brown people, as real Americans or as any kind of people they can cooperate in a democracy or a community with, sad facts that have forced them to secede and build something new. Something they may one day conquer and colonise outer space with. But I don’t think they think that, or at least, openly admit that.

Instead the book tries to show it’s not racist by trying to admit that some discrimination exists but it’s less than you think, and making one of the high executives Black. Well. Teak colored in the book’s own words. He’s a bit estranged from other African-Americans and admits there are only maybe a hundred among a quarter million, but his homies break him out of the L.A. prison he gets sent to after he kills a couple of kids pretending to be terrorists and becomes a hero to the population. That’s a long story I won’t go into, who’d want to give away such a sparkling plot?

The kids are sent in by activists to test the defences, because that’s what environmental activists do, right? Use kids without remorse. Make unreasonable demands. The civil rights movement made some unreasonable demands too, which is how they lost the support of the white community

We did care once. A lot of us did. But something happened. Maybe it was the sheer size of the problem. Or watching while everybody who could afford it ran to the suburbs and left the cities to drift, and complained about taxes going to the cities, and—Or maybe it was having to listen to my police explain why they’ll only go into Watts in pairs with cocked shotguns and if the Mayor doesn’t like it he can damn well police that precinct himself.

People think they’ve done enough. (126)

Note the use of the words ‘us’ and ‘people’ to mean white by default. Thinking you’ve done enough when you’ve done worse than nothing is an interesting contradiction noted by many. But let’s get back to the activists. They call people pigs even when they’re not cops – which is silly, cops have really earned that name. Activists are also almost always rapists apparently. Unless they’re women, in which case they are just sadistic and probably Lesbians. ‘She’s probably a Lesbian’ is a direct quote actually, as the ‘heroine’ imagines shutting her in a room full of rats to mentally survive the indignities of being kidnapped. The men probably couldn’t help raping her of course, they’re brutes and she is a stunning model-turned-business-woman who is powerful and talented and successful and rich and they obviously can’t handle all of that.

Anyway, I haven’t even cracked the surface, just released some of my bile. This is a story where you are supposed to cheer on the beleaguered community of alcoholic rich people who can only drink coffee if it’s Irish, creating their Utopia safely insulated from the nuclear power plants and the poor people who pick their lettuces and sweatshop workers who make their clothes and carrying out their own vigilante justice – which is ok, because they don’t kill people unless it’s absolutely necessary, they just paint them and tattoo them. There’s nothing about how the place stays clean or who makes the food etc, and it’s not the kind of fantasy story where house elves are a possibility though it is one in which things science fiction writers dream up are considered really cool and often become true.

The happy ending is the Black dude gets sent to Zimbabwe.


Vijay Prashad: Polyculturalism and Kung Fu

17608Kung Fu! Finally we learn some lessons from one of my favourite things… Vijay Prashad’s Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asan Connection and the Myth of Cultural Purity lives up to its name, and provides much food for thought as it tries to uncover a useful antiractist ideological framework that destroys the standard binaries of Black and white. It starts (and ends) with the idea of polyculturalism:

Polyculturalism, unlike multiculturalism, assumes that people live coherent lives that are made up of a host of lineages–the task of the historian is not to carve out the lineages but to make sense of how people live culturally dynamic lives. Polyculturalism is a ferocious engagement with the political world of culture, a painful embrace of the skin and all its contradictions. (xii)

I like his use of adjectives, and of course this comes much closer to capturing the reality of our lives, the intersectionalities we all experience.
On Xenophobia as Opposed to Racism
Like Albert Memmi on racism, this book goes back a little ways to try and untangle what we actually mean by it.  Back in the old days before the rise of slavery, what we faced was a little  different. Prashad explores this through a look at the Indian Ocean where many cultures had come together to trade for many centuries:

It would be inaccurate to reduce this ethnocentrism or xenophobia to racism, mainly because there was little sense that the difference was predicated on the body (biological determinism) and that those who are biologically inferior can be put to work in the service of their biological betters. (4)

Thus, while there were ‘undoubtedly fear and feelings of superiority in the face of difference…’ (5) among the various cultural contacts and even empires that have arisen over our history, what has arisen in modern times is qualitatively different.

Modern notions of “race” and modern, capitalist racist institutions render most of the fluidity of cultural difference moot. From da Gama’s arrival onward, traditions of xenophobia in the Indian Ocean world were transformed into the hidebound theories of race that emerge from Europe’s experiments with the enslavement of human beings for profit, most notably in the Atlantic slave trade, With the invention of race and the advent of racism, the Afro-Asian world would alter dramatically. (6)

He places the origins of these new theories of race here, where ‘Two sixteenth-century developments indicate the beginnings of raciology: the Iberian Inquisition and the slave trade’ (15). The Inquisition required tests for the purity of blood, and the justification of slavery, the fundamental difference of African peoples. These distinctions lie at the birth of a new era:

Columbus and da Gama operate as metaphors for how our world entered modernity: by the genocide in the New World (Columbus) and by the end to the cosmopolitanism of the Old World (da Gama). (35)

The antidote, as it were, consists in moving beyond all of this rather than embracing it —  ‘raciology’ has not been limited to whites (though of course, they have wielded it in dominance):

The Brahmin accommodation to, and the Diopian reversal of, the Aryan Myth shows us how those outside the camp of whiteness nourished the categories of raciology, and, more specifically, of white supremacy. Atlantic racism, then, is not the special inheritance and legacy of those who deep themselves to be “white.” (19)

So we move from xenophobia through raciology to modern racism, and from there to fascism:

Fascism (in the European and U.S. core) and colonialism (in the Asian and African periphery) exemplify the highest stage of racist statecraft. (20)

I like this distinguishing of different kinds of racism, different kinds of fascism groups around a core of ideas:

While all fascisms are not identical, there is something Gilroy call the unanimist principle that unites most fascisms, whereby the “people” are one, division is not integral to social relations, and the members of a nation are interchangeable and disposable. Furthermore, the unanimist principle perverts the idea of democracy into a racial hierarchy of the population in which those who sit atop the totem are seen as chosen by God or destiny. (20-21)

Specifically for our purposes, fascism or a movement with fascistic tendencies has at its core hierarchy, racism and militarism. (21)

An oppositional politics requires a new model that will move beyond the challengers already failed — essentialised identity politics and multiculturalism:

The desire to go beyond skin does not necessarily mean to plunge oneself into the socially impossible world of individuality. We are social beings who make communities with an urgency…human identity is constructed…multifaceted and multivalent…(36)

On The American Ideology:

We have come some way since da Gama and Columbus, in analysing it, Prashad reworks the famous phrase from de Bois in ways that I am still thinking through.

neocolonialism was replaced by the theory of neoliberalism in which freedom came to mean liberty of the moneyed to act unburdened by notions of justice and democracy. Neoliberalism threatens us with the reproach of equality, and forbids us to create organizational platforms based on our historical and current oppression. To fight against racism is twisted into a racist act, for to invoke race even in a progressive antiracist agenda is seen as divisive.

The problem of the twenty-first century, then, is the problem of the colorblind. (38)

I am still thinking about whether I find this useful, or if it might not be better to cleave to the problem of the ‘color line’ from de Bois’s original formulation. Not that I disagree with any of the ways he formulates the problem of colourblindness, which seeks to understand racism as nothing more than wrong-headed individual actions rather than ‘the coagulation of socioeconomic injustice against groups.’ (38) I rather like that definition. I also like this description of its effects:

Color-blind justice privatizes inequality and racism, and it removes itself from the project of redistributive and anti-racist justice. This is the genteel racism of our new millennium. (38)

It sounds so elegant — I am not sure I quite know what the privatization of inequality and racism look like, I need to think about that more too. But it becomes a little more clear further on:

Since the state deems the differences within civil society as “nonpolitical distinctions,” it is able to arrogate for itself the role of being above those very distinctions. The formal democratic state can then manage difference with such strategies as “unity in difference,” or, much later, in the United States, as multiculturalism. (57-58)

Thus the state becomes a manager above the justice fray, and multiculturalism becomes its management method.

Beyond the color blind and the primordial is the problem of multiculturalism. (39)

Why problematic? Because this idea of multiculturalism arose to ‘undercut the radicalism of antiracism.’ The difference between the two:

The difference between antiracism and diversity management, then, is that the former is militantly against frozen privilege and the latter is in favor of the status quo.(63)

So we need something different, something that is not primordial and essential, something not colourblind, something not just a management of difference in support of a racial hierarchy with whites at the top.

The theory of the polycultural does not mean that we reinvent humanism without ethnicity, but that we acknowledge that our notion of cultural community should not be built inside the high walls of parochialism and ethno-nationalism. The framework of polyculturalism uncouples the notions of origins and authenticity from that of culture.

He draws from Robin Kelley’s idea of polyculturalism which plays with the idea of polyrhythms, bringing together multiple drummers…

A polyculturalism sees the world constituted by the interchange of cultural forms, while multiculturalism (in most incarnations) sees the world as already constituted by different (and discrete) cultures that we can place into categories and study with respect… (67)

This is a world that is changing, growing, becoming.

A broad antiracist platform would not (like liberal multiculturalism) invest itself in the management of difference, but it would (like a socialist polyculturalism) struggle to dismantle and redistribute unequal resources and racist structures.

Instead it concentrates on the project of creating our humanity. “Human” is an “unfinished product,” one divided by social forces that must be overcome for “human” to be made manifest. In the nineteenth century near Delhi, Akbar Illahabadi intoned that we are born people, but with great difficulty we become human (aadmi tha, bari muskil se insan hua). (69)

Coolie Purana — chapter title for this look at polyculturalism in action. There are lots of little awesome facts in here, like this one on the origin of thug:

“to cover up” in Hindustani, but came to mean “deceiver” in the nineteenth century when the British colonial officials identified certain brigands as thuggees. (70)

On the working class, where this idea of polyculturalism is rounded out and given a little more flesh:

not syncretic (two distinct entities melding with a consciousness of difference), but forged together from the beginning through the byways of Jamaica, the streets of Hartford, the avenues of New York, the dole queues of London, and beyond. Polyculturalism exists most vividly among the poor and working class. (71)

There are, of course, tons of examples. All of his are very different from the ones I grew up with, there is a lot that resonates but border culture is rather different that the crazy mixings that emerged out of the British Empire. I never knew this though:

from 1834-1916, British took almost half a million East Indian people to work as indentured labour in Caribbean and South American plantations. (87)

I’d never heard of Albertha Husbands leading domestic workers on strike — she was amazing, I found a little more from this article from the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian on women’s labour.

But I love this point about struggle in Trinidad — the leaders approach was ‘that in struggle cultural forms would be reshaped to accord with the need for popular dignity.’ Rastafarianism is one example. (87)

I like to be thinking with terms that allow for this change to happen, this growth and becoming are part of the term rather than bending or breaking it. Prashad argues that this bottom-up lived experience of polyculturalism is often greater than its leaders understand…

The will of the polycultural working class, then, drew from, and exceeded, the attempts by Gandhi and Garvey to retain the boundaries set up by imperialism. (95)

It’s not always that simple of course, and some of the dangers and obstacles are explored in the chapter on Merchants — starting with the importance of place to culture and identity:

If there is nothing else to own, at least I own my own body and I have my ‘hood. The anti-Jewish and anti-Korean tendencies in the ‘hood come from this profound desire for dignity among the working class who labor for others, but who do not have the means to produce the services to run their own territories. (115)

I have to think more about this, think more about status and turf and power, but also topophilia and the importance of living well and coming to know intimately the place you live in for survival, the importance of transforming neighborhoods into positive places. Still, this rings very true.

When the working poor has lost every other asset, it holds on to its place of residence and life as the most precious resource ever… a subaltern nationalism, one that demands the protection of territorial sovereignty as the only resource at one’s command. When all else has been stripped away, it is land (place) that must be defended.

And it is often the immigrant who is seen as colonizer, against whom the battle rages… (121)

Kung Fusion:

The final chapter, the hopeful chapter, the chapter I realised I had no idea Bruce Lee had written a book and was ashamed of that. Quoting Lee’s The Tao of Gung Fu: A Study in the Way of Chinese Martial Art, Prashad writes:

Kung Fu, Bruce pointed out in his sociology of the art, “serves to cultivate the mind, to promote health, and to provide a most effective means of self-protection against any attacks.” It “develops confidence, humility, coordination, adaptability and respect toward others.”

I am educated further on the women stars in martial arts world — Pauline Short, Ruby Lozano, Graciela Casillas (Bellflower!), Judith Brown. Prashad quotes Jim Kelley, describes solidarities — Aoki with the Black Panthers, Ho Chi Minh in Garveyite Halls in Harlem and swapping stories about it with Tobert F. Williams, Nkrumah hanging out with Stokely Carmichael. Quotes Nehru speaking at the Bandung conference, 1955:

There is nothing more terrible, there is nothing more horrible than the infinite tragedy of Africa in the past few hundred years. When I think of it, everything else pales into insignificance; that infinite tragedy of Africa ever since the days when millions of them were carried away in galleys as slaves to America and elsewhere, the way they were treated, the way they were taken away, 50 percent dying in the galleys. We have to bear that burden, all of us. We did not do it ourselves, but the world has to bear it. We talk about this country and that little country in Africa or outside, but let us remember this Infinite Tragedy.

To end with a little inspiration:

History is made in struggle and past memories of solidarity are inspiration for that struggle. Indeed, the Afro-Asian and polycultural struggles of today allow us to redeem a past that has been carved up along ethnic lines by historians. To remember Bruce as I do, staring at a poster of him ca. 1974, is not to wane into nostalgia for the past. My Bruce is alive, and like the men and women before him, still in the fight. (149)








Eyes on the Prize: a history of struggle

Eyes on the PrizeIt was quite amazing to sit and read through this tremendous book… a little a day, a little at a time. You know. Immense as it is, I think what surprised me most was just how much couldn’t be packed in here, so much that was missing despite over 700 pages, but that is no critique. I loved it for the broad sense it gave of movement, for giving a more settled sense of what happened when, how things developed. I can fit everything else I’ve been reading into that. Though it’s not the same as living through it, it’s as close as I can get. Its focus is mostly on the South, with a little from Chicago and Detroit and Oakland, so you can easily guess where it’s strengths lie. I still haven’t watched the 14 hours of documentary it serves as a companion to.

This is a whirlwind tour, a potpourri of insights and quotations. My favourite things at this moment in time. I’m still not quite sure why it seemed a good idea to read it cover to cover, but I’m glad I did.

I really loved the framing of it from Vincent Harding’s prologue: We the People. Here are some quotes from that, starting with Harding’s view on the importance of institutions (interesting thinking about social movement theory, so much of which frustrates me exceedingly for not quite thinking about things like this for the most part):

One of the most fascinating element of the post-Reconstruction black movement toward new freedom and extended equality was the continuing work of creating independent and semi-independent black institutions. Without them the black community would have been lost. In addition to the central institution of the family, they included schools at every level, churches and other religious institutions, newspapers and other journals, fraternal and sororal organizations, mutual aid societies, women’s clubs, banks, insurance companies, unions, farmers’ alliances, and emancipation societies.

These were only a portion of the internal, self-claiming self-defining work that was constantly re-creating the black community. (9)

This white privileged attitude hasn’t changed enough either, I am sorry to say:

Almost without exception, the critical issues–sometimes issues of life and death–centered on the willingness of white people to treat black women and men as allies and equals, rather than as wards, pawns, or tools… (9)

On the transformation of self as well as the transformation of society, so key to the work of Horton, Freire, Nyerere

Perhaps all of this was really the willingness of black and white justice-seekers to recognize their own need to become new people in order to create a new society. (10)

the central tasks of the twentieth century black freedom movement were defined at their best not only as the achievement of rights and justice, but also as transformation of the spirit, consciousness, and heart of a people who had been developed and nurtured on the poisons of white supremacist politics, social philosophy, theology and history.

I also like this formulation of what the struggle has been for — Fighting for the ‘Six Claims’, this is to think more about as well:

  1. Claiming the right to the land, to full unhindered participation in the life of the nation and in the reshaping of that life

  2. Claiming the right and responsibility to speak the truth from black perspectives and to insist that those truths become part of a new American reality

  3. Claiming the right to possess themselves, their heritage, their Africanness, their souls

  4. Claiming the necessity of building black institutions, as ends in themselves, and as bases for the creation of the women and men who would eventually join others to develop a more perfect union in America

  5. Claiming the right of self-defense against the intrusive and arrogantly destructive forces of white power

  6. Claiming the same right of principled emigration to Africa or elsewhere that brought the pilgrims and subsequent generations of immigrants to these shores

But one thing is clear. It happened with such momentum because a people had kept their eyes on the prize, had persisted in a vision of a more perfect union, had waded through rivers of blood to keep promises to their foreparents and to their children. Such unyielding commitment and action eventually builds its own momentum, creates new, surprising realities, beginning deep within individual lives, opening up to the re-creation of a society. (34)

It’s divided up into chapters, themed but also chronological — I can’t even imagine the difficulties of creating such divisions that are bound to be somewhat arbitrary. They work fairly well. Each is introduced, with solid text painting the broader picture. But from here I’ll just focus on these amazing source documents. One of the most devastating and powerful was from Anne Moody’s autobiography. At 14 she was already a servant in a white woman’s house:

For the first time out of all her trying, Mrs. Burke had made me feel like rotten garbage. Many times she had tried to instill fear within me and subdue me and had given up. But when she talked about Emmett Till there was something in her voice that sent chills and fear all over me.

Before Emmett Till’s murder, I had known the dear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me–the fear of being killed just because I was black. (43)

More connections in here I didn’t know — Martin Luther King, describing in Stride Towards Freedom how Rev. Glenn Smiley of FOR (the Fellowship of Reconciliation) worked with them through the Montgomery Bus Boycott to write Suggestions for Integrating Buses.

From the 1954 Opinion in Brown v Board:

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms. (71)

Ah, the ideals of education. My cynical self disbelieves it was ever quite like this or ever will be, but good to hear it from the Supreme Court. I looked more in depth at the violence of the white reaction/freak out here. And now we jump ahead a few years to the beginning of the sit-ins.

From Franklin McCain, who was part of sit-in in Greensboro, South Carolina on 1 February 1960, an excerpt from interview in My Soul is Rested by Howell Raines:

If it’s possible to know what it means to have your soul cleansed–I felt pretty clean at that time. I probably felt better on that day than I’ve ever felt in my life. Seems like a lot of feelings of guilt or what-have-you suddenly left me, and I felt as though I had gained my manhood, so to speak, and not only gained it, but had developed quite a lot of respect for it. Not Franklin McCain only as an individual, but I felt as though the manhood of a number of other black persons had been restored and had gotten some respect from just that one day. (115)

We are back to the ways that this struggle transformed people from the inside out.

From SNCC’s Statement of purpose, drafted by Rev James Lawson on May 14, 1960 after the founding conference in April at Shaw University (connecting this up to Ella Baker of course, who made that conference happen. One of her pieces is in here, ‘Bigger than a Hamburger’ but despite how that quote caught on, it isn’t my favourite piece from her):

We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the pre-supposition of our faith, and the manner of our action. Nonviolence as it grows from Judaic-Christian tradition seeks a social order of justice permeated by love. Integration of human endeavor represents the crucial first step towards such a society.

Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overthrows injustice. The redemptive community supersedes systems of gross social immorality.

Love is the central motif of nonviolence. Love is the force by which God binds man to himself and man to man. Such love goes to the extreme; it remains loving and forgiving even in the midst of hostility. It matches the capacity of evil to inflict suffering with an even more enduring capacity to absorb evil, all the while persisting in love.

By appealing to conscience and standing on the moral nature of human existence, nonviolence nurtures the atmosphere in which reconciliation and justice become actual possibilities. (119-120)

There’s the interview with Bernice Reagon that I loved immensely and quoted elsewhere.

Birmingham in MotionFrom Birmingham: People in Motion (the whole pamphlet can be found here, and it is pretty awesome):

In May, 1956 Alabama politicians “stood on the beach of history and tried to hold back the tide.” They outlawed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in a desperate attempt to halt the movement for Negro equality. But their action had precisely the opposite effect. For almost immediately the Negroes of Birmingham came together to form a movement which during the last ten years has transformed life in Birmingham — which has shaken America.

“They could outlaw an organization, but they couldn’t outlaw the movement of a people determined to be free,” said the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, president of the new group. And at a mass meeting called by a committee of Negro ministers, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) was born. Many Negroes in “the Johannesburg of North America “were afraid to join. But many others echoed the sentiments of Mrs. Rosa Walker, one of the first members: “I was frightened , but I figured we needed help to get us more jobs and better education. And we had the man here to help us.” (147)

In its first year, the movement also filed suit in federal court on behalf of a Milwaukee couple arrested because they sat in the “white” waiting room in the city’s railway station. Both these actions followed the pattern of court action established by the NAACP, and in deed, suits have always been one of the ACMHR’s most effective weapons. But in December 1956 the movement entered a new phase, and took on the character it was to retain– of a movement of people putting their bodies into a challenge to the system. (148)

There is Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail — such a powerful thing, one I have written about before here.

Here is Bob Moses on Freedom Schools — there is an hour long interview with him you can listen to here:

We finally decided to set make-shift classes for them. We opened up Nonviolent High in McComb.That was pretty funny. We had about fifty to seventy-five kids in a large room trying to break them down with the elements of algebra and geometry, a little English, and even a little French, a little history, I think Deon taught physics and chemistry, and [Charles] McDrew took charge of history, and I did something with math . . . (175)

Of course we have Fannie Lou Hamer — here is an excerpt from her 1967 autobiography. It was taped and edited by Julius Lester (dude who wrote about how Whitey, Black Power’s gonna get yo mamma) and Maria Varela of SNCC. That alone makes me happy.

I guess if I’d had any sense I’d a been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared? the only thing they could do to me was kill me and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember. (177)

There are quotes from SNCC trip to Guinea, following in Malcolm X’s footsteps, and being told Malcolm had a lot more resonance there — though they had to explain the multiple viewpoints between King and Malcolm. Quotes from local histories show earlier efforts toward full freedom that I had never heard of — 1920s saw formation of the Dallas County Voters’ League to win right of Blacks to vote. The 1920s. In Dallas. Shit.

A quote from Martin Luther King’s speech ‘Our God is Marching On!’, given 25th March, 1965 at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march, after bloody Sunday:

They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; they segregated southern churches from Christianity; they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; and they segregated the Negro from everything. (225-226)

A quote from Malcolm X’s speech ‘Message to the Grassroots’, from 10th November, 1963. The whole thing can be read here:

The only revolution based on loving your enemy is the Negro revolution. The only revolution in which the goal is a desegregated lunch counter, a desegregated theater, a desegregated park, and a desegregated public toilet; you can sit down next to white folks on the toilet. That’s no revolution. Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.

The white man knows what a revolution is. He knows that the black revolution is world-wide in scope and in nature. The black revolution is sweeping Asia, sweeping Africa, is rearing its head in Latin America. The Cuban Revolution — that’s a revolution. They overturned the system. Revolution is in Asia. Revolution is in Africa. And the white man is screaming because he sees revolution in Latin America. How do you think he’ll react to you when you learn what a real revolution is? You don’t know what a revolution is. If you did, you wouldn’t use that word. (253)

A lot from Lowndes Country, struggling with political process, role of patronage and taking care of their own.

From Stokely Carmichael — excerpts from ‘What We Want’ (full article here) and building power across class and race:

SNCC has tried several times to organize poor whites; we are trying again now, with an initial training program in Tennessee. It is purely academic today to talk about bringing poor blacks and whites together, but the job of creating a poor-white power bloc must be attempted.

Between 1965-1968, SCLC started moving away from single-issue campaigns, started to tie everything together. ‘A proposal by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the Development of a Nonviolent Action Movement for the Greater Chicago Area’ from 5 January, 1966 is covered in its own post.

This is also the period of urban uprisings — there is this, from the Report of the National Advsiory Commission on Civil Disorders, or the Kerner Comission, on Detroit:

During five days in the city, 2,700 Army troops expended only 201 rounds of ammunition, almost all during teh first few hours, after which even stricter fire discipline was enforced. (In contrast, New Jersey National Guardsmen and State police expended 13,326 rounds of ammunition in three days in Newark.) . . . (321)

Another powerful account of uprising from Roger Wilkins, director of the U.S.Justice Department’s Community Relations Service. This is an excerpt from his autobiography:

“What is it that they want?”

I looked at her for a long time. This was the kind of middle-class Negro that I’d been running from all my life….

“Jobs and dignity, I guess,” I replied.

“Well, there’s not much dignity in burning and looting,” she replied haughtily. I closed my eyes. I had to go through this with white people all the time.

“No, I suppose not,” I said without opening my eyes, “but I guess there’s also not much dignity in sitting there quietly while the society chokes the life out of you and your children.” (332)

There was an equally powerful piece called ‘Death Watch’ by Marvin Dunn on the 1980 riots in Miami, a history of Liberty City and the changes in the city and the black community. There is a growing northern ‘urban’ focus — it is interesting to me that the struggle in Birmingham, in Montgomery and other places aren’t really thought of as ‘urban’. To be explored later. Here’s Bobby Seale, from Seize the Time on the writing of the executive mandate of the Black Panthers:

Eldridge and Huey and all of us sat down, and it didn’t take us long. We weren’t jiving. No time at all, not like some of the intellectuals and punks that have to take ten days before they can write an executive mandate to put things together. I don’t think it was fifteen minutes before we whipped that executive mandate out… (349-350)

As long as it takes me to write articles, I have surely joined the intellectuals and punks.

There are a whole slew of documents on the controversy over Ocean Hill-Brownsville demonstration school district, and the fight for community control over public education along with a new kind of teaching. This was all new to me, I learned much.

From “A Time to Break Silence”, Martin Luther King on 4 April 1967 in NY’s Riverside Church, his famous anti-war speech:

–what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its own problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that i could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today–my own government (389)

An awesome section written by Mohammed Ali on refusing to go fight in Vietnam. Students organizing at Howard — the umbrella organization for their student activist groups called Ujamaa. Women fighting old ideals of straight hair and beauty. More on Fred Hampton and the growth of the Black Panthers and their destruction, Cointelpro, Angela Davis’s autobiography, George Jackson’s letter, Attica. Increasing efforts in electoral politics.

Maynard JacksonSo a section on new Black mayors — like Mayor Maynard Jackson of Atlanta, inaugurated January 1974:

So, we must be a City of love and our definition of love must be a definition of action. Love must be strong economic growth and prosperity for

Love must be giving the young a voice in City Government and restoring their faith in the electoral process. Love must be concern for the welfare of our senior citizens and a renewed commitment to make their years productive and rewarding for all of us. Love must be a balanced diet for all of our children. Love must be decent, safe and sanitary housing for all Atlantans. Love must be working to rid a community of the rats that attack babies while they sleep. Love must be a good education available to all who wish to learn. Love must be an open door to opportunity instead of a closed door of despair. Love must be good jobs, equal treatment and fair wages for all working people. Love must be safe streets and homes where our families can be secure from the threat of violence. Love must be a decision to care for the sick, the infirm and the handicapped. Love must be a city filled with people working together to improve the quality of all our lives. Love must be the absence of racism and sexism. Love must be a chance for everybody to be somebody.

To insure a clear reflection of this essential ethic, this administration must place priority upon serving the needs of the masses as well as the classes. The pending reorganization of our City Government will be designed to open wide the doors of City Hall to all Atlantans and make our City Government more responsive to “people needs” and “people problems.” (615)

One hell of an elected representative, right? That is a high, then off to the low of the battles against Affirmative Action and the Bakke case.

This really is a potpourri and probably won’t make much sense to anyone else, but what else do you do with such a book? I’m not quite sure why I tried, but it seemed worthwhile. I’ll end with Harold Washington’s inaugural speech on becoming mayor of Chicago, 12 April, 1983 (and what a poem on his death from Gwendolyn Brooks, but I won’t quote that here)

Most of our problems can be solved. Some of them will take brains and some of them will take patience, but all of them will have to be wrestled with like an alligator in the swamp. (701)




A Black Monday (for white supremacists) — Tom P. Brady

br0120p1sJudge Tom Pickens Brady served as the ‘intellectual leader’ of the White Citizens’ Councils, not as famous beyond the South as the KKK perhaps, but just as set on preserving white supremacy. Eyes on the Prize, which documents the civil rights struggle, had a few excerpts from this little number to show what they were up against. Judge Brady first delivered Black Monday as a speech to the Sons of the American Revolution, then expanded it into a 92 page booklet, which is excerpted here. I almost want to read all of it, but it is hard to find, and I am not spending a dime on something like this. It was a best seller in its day though.

The Black Monday in question was Monday, 17th May 1954. The date the Supreme Court gave out its decision in Brown v Board of Education to integrate schools. I don’t know if this helps me any in understanding this crazy, deep-rooted fear that seems so alien, but it helps show some of the web of ‘civilized’ rationalisations built around the fear, and the violence and hate that emerged from it. This may be from the deep South, but permutations of these arguments could be heard everywhere, and it’s not like you won’t hear them today, though perhaps worded just a little differently than they were in 1954.

“Black Monday” is indeed symbolic of the date. Black denoting darkness and terror. Black signifying the absence of light and wisdom. Black embodying grief, destruction and death. (83)

The violence and hurt in these words, that alone is unbearable. I’ve been thinking so much about the white gaze since reading Hilton Als and June Jordan, this right here is how some people look at into the world, it is the hate that fills their stare. And they are pointing it right at human beings like a weapon. This lies underneath all of it, so it is confusing when Brady suddenly swerves into his kind-but-firm and I-know-what-is-best-for-all-of-us slave master talk:

“Black Monday”is not written primarily in behalf of the white people of the seventeen States affected by the Segregation decision, though it is hoped it will be beneficial to them. It is, however, written with the fervent desire that it will be of material benefit to both the white and colored people of this country, wheresoever situated. It is written to alert and encourage every American, irrespective of race, who loves our Constitution, our Government and our God-given American way of life….It is dedicated to those who firmly believe that socialism and communism are lethal messes of porridge for which our sacred birthright shall not be sold. (84)

I am still not sure how this connection between Socialism, Communism and race equality were forged with such lasting bonds, I know communists worked hard and well for it for a brief time before Moscow decided different. Of course, these are also versions of Socialism and Communism that bear no resemblance to real theories or beliefs, being a caricature of Stalinism (though impressive to caricature what is already a caricature) as far as I can tell. But this connection and the straw-man of socialism standing in for equality of all kinds continue strong as ever.

There is some rewriting of history here:

…the saddest and most terrible of all American dramas was enacted–the Reconstruction period–the pious greed of the New England slave trader had brought the negro to our shores and now his insatiable hatred and envy was to be placated. (85)

A lot about how whites won the country, it is stated clearly that ‘negroes’ played no conceivable part in that effort. Not that genocide and conquest are much to be proud of, but Buffalo soldiers played their part. There’s a little hymn to Booker T Washington:

the first great American negro this country has produced. His wisdom transcended his time…(90)

Followed by more about how the wisest of his race knows their place, labouring manually rather than writing poetry. Or worse. A judgment on Mr. Washington, just read Up From Slavery and it’s pretty clear why.

Back to Brown v Board, Brady quotes Major Frederick Sullens’ editorial in the Jackson Daily News. We are back to chilling threats emerging from ‘common sense’…

Members of the Nation’s highest tribunal may be learned in the law, but they were utterly lacking in common sense when they rendered Monday’s decision, common sense of the kind that should have told them about the tragedy that will inevitably follow.


Human blood may stain Southern soil in many places because of this decision, but the dark red stains of that blood will be on the marble steps of the United States Supreme Court building. (92)

It is a kind of hysterical ‘common sense’, which to me makes it no kind of common sense at all. One that already feels besieged, threatened. One that denies others their humanity, which at bottom people must know is wrong — nothing common about that at all. Yet the wrongness is turned outwards,  Brady calls the decision ‘the creation of this Frankenstein’s monster’ by the Supreme Court (92). A reference that threw me a little, but of course so much of this is around terror and the psycho-social drama of miscegenation. I once thought racism was all just about power and status and wealth and privilege, but there’s definitely some deeper psychological shit going on here. Which helps explain, along with the power and status and etc, the power of this strange formulation of racism to endure, along with its enduring links to some strange straw man of communism, and definitions of white liberty and freedom that depend on the absence of freedom and liberty among all those who are not white.

Communism disguised as “new democracy” is still communism, and tyranny masquerading as liberalism is still tyranny. The resistance of communism and tyranny, irrespective of whatever guise they may adopt, is not treason. It is the prerequisite of freedom, the very essence of liberty. (93)

This is still the mantra of the Tea Party and others, still fighting for states rights and racial integrity. Seems like most of it is the fear of having others do unto them as they have done unto others. That might be at the bottom of all of it.

997330[excerpt from Carson, Claybourne, David J. Garrow, Gerald Gill, Vincent Harding, Darlene Clark Hine eds. (1991) Eyes on the Prize: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts From the Black Freedom Struggle. New York: Penguin.]

Hilton Als — White Girls

13239419Hilton Als… damn, White Girls was splendid and queer and pummeled me with pain and experience I can never know because of who I am. Though I am hell of well read, our daily-lived references of poets and words moved past each other almost never touching. Just like our preoccupations. Our ways of being in the world, especially the ways we are with others in the world…I have never ever been a we in the way he describes. I hated Scarlet in Gone With the Wind, and he loved her. I finally understood a little better how I feel about Michael Jackson. Things like that…well, they cracked me open a little more, the kind of gift you don’t even know to ask for, could never demand if you did know because you can feel the cost to its author. The kind of gift you are always grateful for. Even though it hurt just a little to read. At the same time, somehow, I can see why these words, many of them at least, would appeal to the readers of The New Yorker. They were the ones that pushed me further outside maybe, made me feel a bit of voyeur staring in at that cocktail party I never had the credentials to enter. Though maybe too they give me a little more appreciation for that literary streamlining of all that is ‘worthy’, swimming against the tide of my south west/west-coast poor white girl bias against anything held up to me as the place to find Culture with a capital C.

Maybe. It’s just another world, isn’t it, one among so many all scrambled up within us and outside of us. We tend to give ones like this a little more power though, I think. I resent that. But it’s nice to find something like this there though.

Just a few quotes — though the power of this book lies in nothing that can be quoted, just to warn you. That goes way beyond some insights into writers or society…

O’Connor delighted in portraying the forms of domestic terrorism. It is a Catholic tenet that Hod judges by actions, but virtually all her white woman characters judge by appearances. O’Conner greatly adired Faulkner. “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down,” she remarked of Southern writers’ relationship to the Master…What she describes is far more evil: the nice lady on the bus who calls you “nigger” by offering your child a penny; or the old woman who loves to regale her grandchildren with stories about the “pickaninnies” of her antebellum youth. These are the women who wouldn’t know grace if it slapped them in the face–which it often does. And why would any black person want to belong to the world that these women and their men have created? (121)

I don’t know what I love more, the vision of evil or O’Connor’s quote about Faulkner.  More on evil in the eyes of white people

Of course, one big difference between the people documented in these pictures and me is that I am not dead, have not been lynched or scalded or burned or whipped or stones. But I have been looked at, watched, and seen the harm in people’s eyes–fear that can lead to becoming a dead nigger, like those seen here. And it’s those photographs that have made me understand, finally, what the word nigger means, and why people have used it, and the way I use it here, now: as a metaphorical lynching before the real one. Nigger is a slow death. And that’s the slow death I feel all the time now, as a coloured man.

And according to these pictures, I shouldn’t be here talking to you right now at all: I’m a little on the nigger side, meant to be seen and not heard, my tongue hanged and, with it, my mind. (135)


I loved too the piece on Malcolm X’s mother Louise Little.

The Autobiography plays out the violence of their feelings toward the coloured immigrant. Once Malcolm has identified his mother as an immigrant in his book, it is impossible not to see her at a remove. That is the true nature of difference: something stupidly defined so as to be controlled. (156)

But is it?

More on difference in thinking about Eminem, and his mother…

That Mathers should be open to a musical culture not his own is interesting. For some artists–white as well as black–there is the sense that delving into “otherness” allows them to articulate their own feelings of difference more readily. (173)

The other within the other within the other…so much difference we shall never come to the bottom of it, never control it. Should not want to. Yet seems like this desire to contain and control, and the violence that arises from it,  is one of the dynamics that is best at breaking us. Too often it kills us dead.

One last note, a smile and a surprise that Baudelaire should have succeeded in liberating someone…André Leon Talley, editor-at-large for Vogue.

Talley’s immersion in French gave him a model to identity with: Baudelaire, on who work he wrote his master’s thesis, at Brown University in the early seventies. And it was while he was at Brown, liberated by the Baudelairean image of the flâneur, that Talley began to exercise fully his penchant for extravagant personal dress. (197)

I really don’t like Baudelaire, and kind of hate this canon of white men flâneuring about the city because they can, but I am trying to be less judgmental because all of us need different things, and this is helping.

It ends with a sprawling, heartbreaking exploration of the world of Richard Pryor that kept me from sleeping. I have another small note, to find and read Henry Duman’s ‘Ark of Bones’, poet murdered in Harlem’s train station.

This of course, does not even touch what this book meant to me as I read it, but I don’t really know how to do that. Except that it highlights to me again that some cannot choose whether or not people stare with hate and fear at their difference. But us straight white girls? We can often choose. How important, then, that we join our own differences with those of others and face down the hatred together, come what may.

[Als, Hilton (2013) White Girls. San Francisco: McSweeney’s.]